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Counterinsurgency in Eastern Afghanistan — Security

In December 2001, as per the Bonn Agreement signed in reaction to the September 11 attacks, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) created the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for a mission of security and state-building in Afghanistan. The purpose was to train Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), stabilize the government of Afghanistan (GOA), and dispel insurgent groups—namely the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The ISAF established four Regional Commands (RCs) in Afghanistan each commanded by signatories of the Bonn Agreement:  Germany contributed troops in the RC-North; Italy in the RC-West; the United Kingdom, Canada, and the Netherlands rotated command in the RC-South; and the RC-East was commanded by the United States. While this was an international effort, it was clearly led by the United States. Kabul was situated in the RC with the most active counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts, RC-East. 

The instability in Afghanistan can be attributed to the endless periods of conflict since 1979 — beginning with the Soviet invasion, the civil war between the GOA and insurgency groups, conflict between the different insurgency groups themselves, and, finally, what has become the longest war in American history:  the War in Afghanistan, which began in 2001.

Improving Afghanistan’s security was the main pillar of the U.S.’s three-pillar approach in their counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts, the other two being building governance and encouraging economic development. In the excerpt from his book Counterinsurgency in Eastern Afghanistan 2004-2008: A Civilian Perspective, published in 2014 as part of the ADST Memoirs and Occasional Papers Series, active-duty Foreign Service Officer Robert Kemp offers a voice of clarity in a country largely misunderstood by outsiders. You can read the overview here.

Here he focuses on enhancing security in Afghanistan, which was one of the three-pillar approach of the U.S.’s COIN strategy, the other two being economic development and governance. He gives a run-down of the Afghan and international forces deployed in the region and discusses how international efforts in RC-East improved security, especially at one of the major border crossings, though admittedly at a high cost. He introduces three specific American task forces for a microcosm-level view of military presence in RC-East and its role in improving security.

You can also read about the rise of the Taliban, the U.S. bombing of an Afghan wedding, and the 1979 assassination of Ambassador Spike Dubs in Kabul.


The Challenge of Improving Security

KEMP:  Considerable amounts of effort and money were expended towards [improving security]. U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts in eastern Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005 were predominantly focused on the border with Pakistan, where the majority of combat operations took place.

The provinces with the most active insurgencies were Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Kunar Provinces, with security generally better away from the border and in non-Pashtun areas, such as Bamyan and Panjshir Provinces. By 2008 this had changed considerably, with more fighting in parts of Ghazni, Wardak, and Logar Provinces….

Most of the fighting during this period involved small units of insurgents and, sporadically, intense firefights. The insurgents, for the most part, avoided moving and attacking in large units which coalition forces could fix and target with considerable firepower — either from ground forces, close-air support, artillery, or a combination of these. Attacks on larger bases failed for similar reasons, coupled with good perimeter security, although some assaults on smaller bases came closer to success for the insurgents, particularly in Kunar and Nuristan.

Seen from the level of brigade commands, RC-East had an almost constant stream of small unit “troops in contact” (TICs), improvised explosive devices (IEDs), indirect fires of rockets and mortars, and small ambushes.… This activity was seasonal—during the winter months it tapered off sharply, particularly in areas with heavy snowfall and cold weather. Big sweeps by battalion-sized forces often seemed to have limited results, in part because the insurgents went to ground — slipping into Pakistan, becoming farmers again, or hiding out.

Population security in the larger towns — such as Khost, Ghazni or Jalalabad — was surprisingly good; there was only limited urban fighting and not that many bombings during this time…. Population security in rural areas along the border was difficult to achieve, however, due to the dispersed population in these areas.

In the end, the capacity and resilience of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) [are] what will matter. The Afghan National Army (ANA) made considerable gains in terms of capacity and development, and many of its officers and soldiers showed a real ability for small-unit operations—unsurprisingly, given Afghan history and culture. Operating in larger units, planning and logistical support were challenging for the ANA but steady progress was made overall.

“Most enlisted troops had only the murkiest idea what their ISAF shoulder patches meant”

The U.S. and international military chains of command were complex during this time and underwent several major changes in structure and leadership. There were separate, parallel chains:…U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF); U.S. Special Forces and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF); International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which reported to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) charged with training Afghan security forces. In 2008, OEF was made subordinate to ISAF under (U.S.) Commander of ISAF Gen. David McKiernan in order to establish unity of command.

Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan  (CFC-A) was established in November 2003 as the coalition headquarters for Afghanistan and reported to Central Command (CENTCOM). CFC-A was commanded by a three-star general during this period, first by Lieutenant General (LTG) David Barno, followed by LTG Carl Eikenberry. The desired end-state of CFC-A was: “A moderate, stable and representative Afghanistan capable of controlling and governing its territory.”

Subordinate to CFC-A was a series of Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF) at the corps or division level based out of Bagram under which RC-East was subordinate. In October 2006, RC-East was nominally moved under ISAF command, at that time commanded by United Kingdom Gen. David Richards. In practice, this reorganization had limited impact at the field level; RC-East remained a U.S. show, and most enlisted troops had only the murkiest idea what their ISAF shoulder patches meant. 

The brigade command in RC-East was central to the coordination of military efforts:

  • Development funding under Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP);
  • Political activities, training, mentoring, and joint operations [under] ANSF.

Brigade commands also played an important role in interagency coordination with [the Department of] State, [U.S. Agency for International Development] USAID, and [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] USDA; and … other parts of the U.S. government (USG). [Brigade commands] were also the main link to the CJTF in Bagram and were key in coordination with Pakistani forces along the border. The brigade command oversaw Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and maneuver battalion activities in RC-East—determining priorities, assigning resources, and assessing progress.

Case Studies

The following section will look at case studies of how two brigade commands carried out their job from a civilian perspective.

In 2005 the brigade command for RC-East was located in Khost at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Salerno (in photo) [with] the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne. This command was subordinate to CJTF-76, at Bagram, and was known as “CTF Devil.” The brigade was commanded by a full colonel, supported by a complete staff and augmented with liaison officers from subordinate and Special Forces units.

The Deputy Commander, a lieutenant colonel, had overall responsibility for the PRTs. The brigade controlled eight PRTs (Asadabad, Jalalabad, Methar Lam, Gardez, Ghazni, Bamian, Khost, Sharan) and a complement of between four and five maneuver battalions, including marine and airborne units, for a total of roughly 5,000 personnel.

The strategy of CTF Devil for RC-East was nested within the larger OEF strategy…:

Conduct stability operations to defeat insurgents and separate them from the people.

  • Protect the people in RC-East and interdict infiltrators from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
  • Transform the environment by building the Afghans’ capacity to secure and govern themselves.

CTF Devil correctly identified the Afghan population as the key:  “The CTF’s decisive operations would focus on the people, the center of gravity. For operations to succeed, coalition forces realized the people needed to believe they were secure. The task force found itself in competition with the Taliban for the will of the people.”

The U.S. military later added a second brigade combat team to the border areas of RC-East, including a second task force — TF Spartan — headquartered in Jalalabad. This brigade headquarters had responsibility for four provinces:  Nangarhar, Kunar, Laghman, and Nuristan (known as N2KL).

This considerably increased the ability to carry out combat operations in areas that were previously “economy of force” operations — those with only a minimal presence, in order to allow a greater presence elsewhere — as well as increased partnering with ANA, Afghan Border Police (ABP), and Afghan National Police (ANP) units. It also had increased the level of security sufficiently that the PRTs could operate in districts where their movements had previously been restricted.

Task Force Bayonet

In 2007 the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (ABCT, in photo) took over N2KL as TF Bayonet, filling in behind the 3rd brigade, 10th Mountain TF Spartan, headquartered at Jalalabad Air Field (JAF) just east of the city of Jalalabad. The 173rd had originally been designated to go to Iraq, and was already training for that deployment when it was redirected to Afghanistan.

TF Spartan had aggressively expanded the joint US-Afghan presence in their area of operations, establishing numerous FOBs and combat outposts (COPs). The 173rd largely fell in on the strategy laid out by TF Spartan — perhaps, in part, because they were diverted from being deployed to Iraq to instead deploying to Afghanistan, on very short notice.

Beyond inheriting more than twenty-five FOBs and the smaller, less permanent COPs, TF Bayonet engaged in a very broad spectrum of activities. As with TF Devil, it coordinated the activities of PRTs in Jalalabad, Asadabad, Mehtar Lam and Nuristan; directed the operations of six battalions; and managed more than $100 million of CERP funds, which included amounts for extensive road and bridge construction projects. The TF also worked with the ANA on:

  • joint operations, training, and mentoring;
  • border control, including coordination with Pakistani security forces;
  • an information operations program; and
  • a limited political program with Afghan officials.

TF Bayonet had some outstanding battalion and troop commanders, who adapted to some very complex situations and led well in difficult circumstance….

Later in the deployment, the TF was augmented by a helicopter detachment, considerably increasing its ability to carry out combat operations, defend firebases, and attack insurgent movements. This TF faced some heavy fighting, particularly in the Pesh Valley, the Korangal Valley, and parts of Nuristan.  As noted in the development chapter, this TF was an important player in integrated counter-narcotics (CN) and development projects, including Nangarhar Inc.

This ambitious range of activities was a challenge to manage, even though the 173rd had a full colonel deputy commander who handled CERP and a range of other administrative issues as well as very competent majors and lieutenant colonels on the brigade staff. Initially there were no civilians on the brigade staff, although the State Department filled a political advisor position in the fall of 2007 (the author), and AID and USDA provided officers by 2008. As a short-term fix for the lack of civilians, State’s S/CRS [Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization] detailed officers to TF Bayonet for part of 2008. Clearly, more civilian presence and expertise from the beginning of this TF deployment was needed.

TF Bayonet  Achievements — Providing Security but at High Costs

By the time TF Bayonet rotated out in the summer of 2008 (handing over to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 1st Infantry Division, TF Duke), it had accomplished a great deal. Nangarhar had been largely stabilized, the Afghan government and security forces were in the lead, and the economy was fairly strong. Laghman Province showed steady progress in government and security.

Kunar and Nuristan were improving, although both of these provinces had such fundamental challenges — high mountains with harsh winters, several active insurgencies, weak infrastructure and governance, a history of fighting against outsiders, a long border with Pakistan, and limited economic potential — that only so much progress could be expected over a single (or multiple) deployments.

TF Bayonet achieved some fundamental and important goals. Security operations helped give the government of Afghanistan and ANSF time to expand their reach, and the coalition presence gave confidence to many Afghans. Aside from some more remote areas, the insurgents had limited success in holding territory and did not threaten urban areas.

The highway from the

Khyber Pass [a mountain passage connecting Afghanistan and Pakistan] through Nangarhar and Laghman, a critical supply route, was never closed during this period, and government organization at Torkham Gate [one of the major border crossings between Afghanistan and Pakistan, in photo] improved. The coalition presence in N2KL almost certainly shielded Kabul from attack. Among other development efforts major road programs were carried out, opening up previously isolated areas.

In the months and years after the 173rd’s deployment, there was considerable public debate over the tactic of dispersing more than 25 FOBs and COPs through the area of operations. While these smaller bases were more vulnerable to attack, and were often difficult to resupply from a counterinsurgency perspective, this was the correct approach. They provided security for the local population, helped the ANA and GOA extend its reach, blocked insurgent resupply and transit routes, kept tabs on local conditions, and made it harder for insurgents to attack cities and towns.

On the negative side, maintaining these bases required considerable commitment in terms of money, time and casualties, especially if it were to succeed in the longer term. Local conditions — a rising insurgency, operating both locally and out of sanctuaries, coupled with extremely rugged terrain — certainly made this an expensive proposition (as the Soviets found out in the 1980s when they conducted operations in Kunar and suffered considerable setbacks and casualties.) A ten- to fifteen-year commitment that controlling this part of Afghanistan would require with all the associated costs was almost certainly more than the coalition was willing to support but probably wasn’t figured into the original calculations.

Another debate centered on the fight in the Korangal Valley, in Kunar Province west of Asadabad. This was a protracted, low-intensity struggle in rugged conditions that resulted in considerable casualties (by Afghanistan standards) and the expenditure of considerable ordnance, by most standards. Part of the debate is a result of the complexity of the situation.

The native Korangalis were insular, hostile to outside forces, culturally outliers dedicated to protecting a timber/lumber industry that they felt was threatened while hosting (either thorough coercion, affiliation, or both) insurgent groups, including Arabs and other non-Afghans. Coalition and Afghan forces were trying to keep this rugged valley from becoming an insurgent base… a staging area for attacks against population centers, including Kabul and Jalalabad. The conflict almost certainly took on a momentum of its own with none of the various sides wanting to back down once the fight was joined.

“Humanitarian Space” and Reconstruction Projects

The tactics of each maneuver battalion in RC-East were considerably different depending upon its internal capabilities, the training and equipment of the battalion, the guidance provided by the brigade command, the nature of the insurgency, the terrain, the capabilities of the local ANSF and GOA, informal Afghan security forces, and the personality and inclination of the battalion commander and his staff. This section looks at how these units operated in 2005, but this was not significantly different, overall, in later years.

In 2005 RC-East maneuver battalions were based in Orgun-E, Khost, Ghazni, and Jalalabad, and in most cases had more than one province in their AO. Each unit, comprising roughly 700 soldiers, was commanded by a lieutenant colonel, operating out of a Tactical Operations Center (TOC). These battalions were combat-oriented, constantly carrying out patrols, sweeps, cordon-and-search operations and occasional full-scale assaults in coordination with air assets.

They were sufficiently strong that the Taliban and other insurgent units could not prevail in any protracted engagement, or be able to field units above twenty or thirty fighters. These efforts helped to secure the “humanitarian space” as well, providing enough cover so that PRTs, and in some cases NGOs, were able to operate more effectively.

The battalions also carried out reconstruction projects using CERP funding. These projects were often targeted at populations in areas with active insurgencies with the aim of demonstrating the benefits of supporting the GOA and the coalition or … in areas immediately after combat operations. By mid-2005, some maneuver units were contributing to the security of major road-building projects, which would not have been possible otherwise.

Battalion officers also contributed to political development; the commanders were often in close contact with governors and (politically influential) police chiefs, in some cases acting as de facto advisors. At the district levels, captains were the counterparts of sub-governors in some areas, acting as advisors and helping with funding and security. 

In 2005 the U.S. Special Forces had Operation Detachments-B (ODBs) at Khost, Jalalabad and Orgun-E, with Operational Detachments-A (ODAs) deployed in many different areas, including several FOBs. These units engaged in a variety of activities, including direct action, some foreign internal defense (working with Afghan forces), “psychological operations”, and reconstruction efforts. At times, these forces cooperated closely with battalion and PRT efforts which complemented the limited manpower of the ODAs, while contributing knowledge of the local situation. 

Afghan and Pakistani Security Forces

Afghan security forces included the ANA, the ANP, the ABP, and the National Directorate of Security (NDS) … ([which possessed] both intelligence and law-enforcement responsibilities). All of these forces were being developed and varied widely in strength and quality between—and sometimes within—provinces. Subordinate to the ANP were the Highway Police (later disbanded). Of these forces, the ANA (in photo) was overall the most effective and the most respected by the populace.

The ANP often lacked equipment, funding, and morale; they were also perceived by much of the population as being corrupt in various degrees. The deployment of these forces was uneven; Jalalabad by the fall of 2005 had a substantial ANA garrison, while other provinces—Nuristan, Daykundi, and much of Paktika—had few, if any, troops deployed.  In general, relations between the Afghan forces and the PRTs and maneuver units were cooperative. 

In addition to the formal security forces, there were a variety of informal units that played a role during this period. In the Pashtun areas there was the tradition of alberkai, tribal militias, raised to provide security for specific events or emergencies. These were called up for both the 2004 presidential and the 2005 parliamentary elections, and performed well at the local level. Several tribal and local strongmen still controlled their own informal militias, but by the end of 2005 these had mostly been disbanded. In some areas, existing militias were endorsed by the GOA and coalition until the ANA could take over; an example where this worked well was the 25th Afghan Militia Force, a battalion-sized unit based in Khost that complemented U.S. forces until regular ANA units were deployed to Khost. 

In Pakistan, the paramilitary Frontier Corps was deployed along the border and in some ways was the most important counterpart to U.S. and Afghan forces. It had headquarters in both Peshawar and Quetta and a total strength of roughly 65,000 men. The Frontier Corps was normally under the Ministry of Interior (MOI), with regular military officers leading battalion-level units.

In the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), it had 14 local units, including the well-known Khyber Rifles. Other forces included the kassadars (tribal policemen) … lashkars (militiamen). None of these units were particularly well-trained or equipped during this period.

The Pakistani Army’s 11th Corps was headquartered in Peshawar. Beginning in 2002, the Pakistani military was increasingly active in the FATA, carrying out sweeps against some insurgent groups, particularly those with foreign fighters, and providing security in border areas in support of the 2005 Afghan elections. The U.S. provided considerable assistance through its Foreign Military Funding (FMF) program and through Coalition Support Funds.

The Significance of Military Presence for Improving Security

The presence of U.S. and ISAF military forces in RC-East during this period was important for multiple reasons. First, they gave the ANSF enough time to recruit, train, and deploy to border areas, beginning in significant numbers by 2004 and 2005. Once the Afghan units began to deploy, U.S. forces worked with them as mentors and in joint operations, increasing their confidence and capabilities, particularly in operations involving larger units and more complex operational planning.

Second, the military presence along the border areas of RC-East served as a shield from insurgents aiming at Kabul, the political center of gravity — even though small groups could still get through.

Third, these forces gave a degree of confidence to the local population that felt threatened by the insurgents and other armed groups and provided some protection to local government centers as these gradually expanded their reach.

Importantly for U.S. security strategy, including homeland security, Al Qaeda was largely unable to operate in RC-East in any … strategically significant way. In a sense, RC-East was a successful holding action while operations in Iraq took precedence — maintaining a presence while doing what needed to be done to maintain stability and establishing a foundation for the surge of troops and civilians that began in 2009….

The U.S. military presence, coupled with the ANSF once it began to deploy in significant numbers, certainly hindered insurgent efforts. Arguably, this foreign presence may have also given the insurgents and jihadists a rallying point. However, the insurgency would have occurred regardless as the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and other groups sought to assert control over parts of Afghanistan and weaken the Karzai [Hamid Karzai was the president of Afghanistan from 2004 to 2014] government.