The 'Andar Uprising' and Progress in Afghanistan

Originally published in Wall Street Journal
October 4, 2012

A member of the Afghan National Police looks on during a joint patrol with U.S. Army soldiers in Kandahar on May 28, 2012 (Reuters)

Success in Afghanistan remains possible. As tragic and regrettable as they are, recent “green-on-blue” attacks against U.S. forces do not signify the failure of U.S.-Afghan partnership efforts or the enmity of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Afghan people. Incidents spectacular enough to grab headlines in an overheated election year have badly distorted our understanding of what actually has happened on the ground in Afghanistan this fighting season.

The most important developments this year have been the failure of a determined Taliban effort to regain key terrain that they had lost, and the displacement of continuing violence away from populated areas and toward remote locations. Add to that the resiliency of the Afghan Local Police in key villages under determined Taliban attack, and the emergence of new anti-Taliban movements in former Taliban strongholds. The war is far from won, but a path to victory remains evident and viable if we have the will to pursue it.

In December 2009, the Taliban controlled all of the approaches to Kandahar and were gaining control of the city itself. They controlled most of Helmand province with a fortified and uncontested command node in the town of Marjah. There was virtually no ANSF presence in Helmand, and the Afghan forces in Kandahar were ineffective if not disloyal. The NATO International Security Assistance Force had only a small presence in Kandahar. Local Afghans generally either tolerated or actively supported the Taliban. Ahmed Wali Karzai, President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, widely accused of corruption, monopolized power in the area in a way that marginalized and alienated large segments of the population. In nearly every way, we were on the road to defeat.

Then came the much-needed “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan. President Obama announced the policy on Dec. 1, 2009, and the last surge forces reached their positions in Kandahar in September 2010. By the following November and the end of the 2011 fighting season, the situation throughout the south had been reversed. NATO and Afghan forces had driven the Taliban from nearly all their safe havens in Kandahar, cleared Marjah and most of the Central Helmand River Valley, and begun pursuing the Taliban into more remote areas.

In addition, an entire Afghan corps was fielded in Helmand alone, doubling the Afghan National Army’s combat power in the south. Local Afghans turned away from the Taliban and began supporting Afghan Local Police initiatives throughout these areas and even into remote locales that regular Afghan military forces could not reach.

More recently, each province has fielded a Provincial Response Company—like a cross between SWAT teams and Special Operations Forces—to react rapidly to attacks and threats. Ahmed Wali Karzai’s assassination in July 2011 opened politics in the south to a larger number of players representing a somewhat broader constituency. Corruption certainly remains extensive, but the municipality of Kandahar City is now raising its own revenue through fees and licenses—and spending some of that money on urban improvements.

At the end of 2011, we said that the test of the progress in the south would be whether it held through the inevitable Taliban effort to undo it in 2012. There was a lot of fighting this year in the south, including spectacular attacks, assassinations, green-on-blue incidents, IEDs and small-arms fire. But the Taliban has not regained the ground it has lost, and they have become further alienated from the people.

It goes underreported, but the Afghan military has fought hard—sustaining many more casualties than NATO—and held its own, partnered with NATO, even as thousands of U.S. and allied forces left the area. The post-surge drawdown has just been completed. The next test of the resiliency of the progress in the south will be whether the Afghan forces can continue to hold when supported by fewer international troops during the next fighting season.

The bulk of the surge forces went into southern Afghanistan with the expectation that some of them would shift to the east at some point. But President Obama’s order to remove all surge forces by this September largely prevented that shift from occurring, so the impact of the surge on eastern Afghanistan has been limited.

There has nevertheless been important change even in the east. By far the most surprising has been the emergence of a militant anti-Taliban movement in the Andar district of Ghazni province. Andar has traditionally been a Taliban safe haven whose population actively supported the Taliban and vehemently opposed the Afghan government. The Taliban had freedom of movement, logistics bases, financial support, recruiting and training bases, and safe places to keep (and visit) their families.

That all began to change this spring when an American brigade moved into southern Ghazni for the first time. The Taliban increased their resources and efforts in the province, placing a great deal of pressure on the population. When the population sought to resist that pressure, they found that they had both NATO and Afghan military support for the first time. The Taliban attempted to crush this nascent resistance. But local fighters supported by NATO and Afghan forces defeated them, sending shock waves through the Taliban leadership and the Afghan government.

As a result, many villages across Afghanistan are now modeling the “Andar Uprising,” by which they mean forming anti-Taliban groups that seek the help of NATO and the Afghan military. This phenomenon is not as widespread or pivotal as Iraq’s “Anbar Awakening” in 2006-07, when Sunni tribesmen helped turn the tide against al Qaeda-backed insurgents. But it is extremely important as a harbinger. While the meme in the U.S. is the perceived hopelessness of victory, the meme in villages across Afghanistan is that Afghans can and should rise up against the Taliban and expel them. That’s progress.

Nevertheless, Washington seems preoccupied with fulfilling the president’s promise to withdraw most U.S. forces by 2014. The premature withdrawal of the surge forces in the middle of the fighting season has seriously hampered our ability to capitalize on these changes and turn them into stable gains. The situation in the east remains precarious. And it remains to be seen whether the south can be held at post-surge force levels.

What is clear is that we are rushing to judgment. We are looking for success too quickly and abandoning hope too soon. The outcome remains balanced on a knife’s edge, but a collapse of the situation on the ground is unlikely as long as we remain active and partnered with the Afghan security forces and the Afghan people.