Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown

9 February 2011

Drawing Down first US troops in July 2011 will jeopardise security gains: new field assessment report

Serious concerns over Afghan security forces’ complicity with the Taliban

Dramatic increase in opium prices – Afghans interviewed lack knowledge of 9/11 attacks
KABUL – The dangers of a summer drawdown from Afghanistan by US troops were underlined in a new field assessment from Helmand and Kandahar provinces by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), which recommends that current force levels be maintained until July 2012.

The report found that the surge of 30,000 additional US troops into southern Afghanistan has improved the security dynamics on the ground significantly. Major gains have been made in clearing districts previously held by the Taliban, and the Afghan security forces are growing in competence and number.

“Despite this progress, security challenges remain serious: the current situation is tenuous,” said Norine MacDonald, President and Lead Field Researcher of ICOS. “NATO-ISAF or Afghan security force control does not yet extend beyond the main urban centres in some districts. Many roads in Helmand and Kandahar remain impassable due to insurgent activities.”

A predicted escalation of fighting in summer months
Figures from previous years show that fighting is likely to escalate in the summer months. “A drawdown just when fighting is likely to be at its most intense in the summer months would jeopardise the recent hard-earned progress,” said MacDonald.

The report recommends maintaining current force levels until July 2012 to preserve the hard-won gains of the surge and assure a successful transition process.

“It is vital to sustain the newly improved security levels because this creates an enabling environment to begin seeing some progress in aid and governance,” said MacDonald.

The report underlines that there are still no clear strategies for addressing the urgent needs of displaced people, nor the chronic grinding poverty and unemployment in the south.

Doubts about capacity of Afghan forces
There are widespread fears about Afghan security forces’ complicity with the insurgents, particularly with regard to those Afghan police units in exposed positions on the roads or away from the urban centers of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.

“The current military withdrawal calendar puts pressure on NATO-ISAF to produce quick results for the training of Afghan security forces, and increases the risks of choosing quantity over quality,” said MacDonald. “It also does not allow sufficient time to build the political loyalty of these forces, or provide assurances that these troops will be both able and willing to stand up to Taliban attacks or intimidation.”

Insurgents adapting their tactics
In response to the pressures of the surge, the Taliban are adapting their tactics, focusing on targeted killings and roadside bombs. This comes amid fears that, faced with the usual spring/summer Taliban offensive, the Afghan police and army will be unable to hold the districts that have been cleared. This is especially worrying given fears about Afghan security forces’ complicity with the Taliban.

As NATO-ISAF clears insurgent strongholds in the south, this could push the Taliban to switch their focus north of Kandahar, towards Kabul or through further expansion in the northern provinces.

Domestic politics influencing drawdown timing
The White House acknowledges that the gains made so far are “fragile and reversible”. “The directive to begin drawing down US forces in July 2011, announced by President Obama at West Point in December 2009, is based on domestic politics and pressure for a withdrawal rather than a realistic assessment of on-the-ground dynamics in southern Afghanistan,” said MacDonald.

Opium prices skyrocket
The report also noted the lack of an effective counter-narcotics policy on the ground: “Dramatic rises in the farm-gate opium price may enable the insurgency to gain greater profits from the opium economy,” said Jorrit Kamminga, ICOS’ Director of Policy Research. In some areas, prices were reported at $475kg, compared with last year’s rate at around $180kg. “These higher opium prices will likely draw more farmers into poppy farming.”

Lack of knowledge of 9/11 attacks and reason for NATO-ISAF presence
Previous ICOS field research identified a wide “relationship gap” between the Afghan people and the international community. The research revealed high levels of hostility towards the foreign presence in southern Afghanistan. It also showed that, after being read a description of the 9/11 attacks that brought the US and its allies to Afghanistan, only 8% of the men interviewed in Kandahar and Helmand stated that they knew about them.

“We need to explain to the Afghan people why we are here, and both show and convince them that their future is better with us than with the Taliban,” said MacDonald.

Summer Drawdown a dangerous maneuver
“A premature drawdown of troops is a high-risk move, and would trigger a deterioration of the security situation right when we are seeing the first signs of progress,” said MacDonald. “If the surge forces remain in Afghanistan until July 2012, there will be time to assure the security gains are irreversible.”