KABUL — For the Afghan army and police, the past few months have brought record casualties and forced a realization that many commanders once balked at: Part of Afghanistan will probably remain in the enemy’s hands.
“I cannot cover every inch of the country. The Afghan army isn’t big enough,” said Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, the chief of staff of the Afghan army.
After nearly 12 years of war, Afghan forces are doing the bulk of the fighting and dying here as the U.S. military drawdown accelerates. From 800 bases last year, the U.S.-led NATO coalition is down to about 100. By February, it will have about 50. Most bases are not handed to Afghan forces after coalition troops depart.
That shrinking military footprint has transformed the nature of the war at a critical juncture. Afghan troops in much of the country have gone on the offensive, conducting operations to disrupt Taliban havens far from their bases. But when those operations conclude, the government is often unable to hold key terrain, according to top U.S. and Afghan commanders.
“Where you have some leadership challenges ... there are gaps in layered security,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “Where the Afghan forces clear (an enemy stronghold), there needs to be a second and third step to follow through.”
More than 400 Afghan soldiers and police officers are dying each month, and the insurgency remains stronger than many had anticipated. Western officials have watched the fighting this year closely, considering it a litmus test for the future of Afghan security.
But while Afghan troops have displayed much-improved commitment and ability, the country’s nascent security forces have in some cases failed to fill the gap left by the departing foreign troops. Commanders have had to sketch out new, realistic priorities, accepting that the Taliban will remain undisturbed in some places.
“If there is a small house or a village at the top of the mountain, and I know there is Taliban there, I will say: ‘OK, you can stay there. As long as you are not making trouble in the big city,’” Karimi said.
U.S. and Afghan officials have conducted a “gap analysis” to gauge the security holes left where Afghan forces have been unable to take control. Part of the transition, Dunford said, is attempting to close those gaps.
In the meantime, the Afghan army’s focus is on protecting urban areas, where the bulk of the population lives, Karimi said, even if far-flung districts remain out of the military’s reach. The country’s police force is, in theory, responsible for securing those population centers, but many army commanders say it has been unable to deliver.
Surge in responsibility
The U.S. troop drawdown has sometimes left Afghan forces, who are contending with a sudden surge in responsibility, without resources they had grown used to, such as medical evacuation and close air support.
Karimi said he worries about morale as casualties mount and air evacuation teams sometimes fail to arrive on time.
“It is ... hurting me, let alone the soldiers,” he said.
U.S. commanders say it has been difficult at times to provide support because of a lack of communication between Afghan and American troops now that the units are no longer together.
“We have had some cases where Afghans are in the lead ... and many times, we don’t have the details of those operations,” Dunford said. “They didn’t think through to coordinate with us to let us know what they’re doing so we’d be in a position to support them.”
That lack of communication left dozens of Afghan troops without support during a large battle in northeastern Afghanistan in March, he said. Seventeen Afghan soldiers died.
But Dunford said he is committed to providing evacuation support to Afghans “where there is a risk of loss of a life, limb or eyesight.”
According to NATO’s post-2014 plan, that assistance — along with close air support — would cease at the end of the coalition’s formal mission. Dunford and other NATO commanders are working to revise the policy so that critical support would continue beyond 2014.
“That will be a policy decision that hasn’t been made yet by both NATO and the United States,” Dunford said.
For years, U.S. and Afghan officials argued that only a political solution would bring an end to the war in Afghanistan — a prospect that government officials from both sides are clinging to, despite the stalling of negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
But the top Afghan and U.S. commanders in Afghanistan now acknowledge that a high-level peace deal would not rid the country of violence. The insurgency is too varied and localized, Karimi said.
“There are two parties within the Taliban: One is 100 percent in favor of peace talks. They are moderate. Then there is another group that wants to fight,” Karimi said.
For his part, Dunford said criminal networks will operate with impunity, regardless of calls for reconciliation by Taliban leaders.
“A peace deal in Doha won’t stop violence in Afghanistan,” Dunford said. “Afghan forces will still be dealing with violence associated with crime and illicit trafficking across the border areas after 2014.”
But he appeared more optimistic than his Afghan counterpart about the effect a peace deal could have on the most hardened militants.
“At least for ideological-based fighters who take instruction from the Quetta Shura,” Dunford added, referring to the Pakistan-based Taliban leadership, “it’s going to make a difference.”
Both commanders suggested that there is no easy fix to end the insurgency before 2014, when the formal conclusion of the war coincides with a crucial presidential election.
“Timely, inclusive, free and fair elections are absolutely critical to the transition process,” Dunford said. “I can’t imagine us having an effective transition in 2015 without the single most important thing that has happened in the campaign, which is the elections of 2014.”