Afghanistan Conflict Update – February 2020

ABF Checkpoint on Durand Line

Curated news, analysis, and commentary about the conflict in Afghanistan. Topics include security, ANDSF, Resolute Support, NATO, governance, elections, peace talks, development, and more.

More U.S. Deaths. Two members of the U.S. Army Special Forces were killed on Saturday, February 8, 2020 in an apparent insider attack. The incident took place in Shirzad district, Nangarhar province shortly after a key leader engagement (KLE) at the district center. As the Green Beret team and Afghan SOF partner unit were waiting on a helicopter on a pickup zone (PZ) on a nearby field an individual in an Afghan uniform opened up with a heavy machine gun.

On February 12, 2020 a Soldier assigned to the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade based at Fort Drum, New York died from a non-combat related incident at Bagram Airfield. Last year in Afghanistan 23 U.S. troops died.

Upcoming Events

CNAS Event: Managing U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan. On Tuesday, February 25, 2020 the Center for a New American Security will hold a panel discussion on U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The panel will address the “why” and the “how” of withdrawal. The panel will feature a number of analysts with a deep knowledge of Afghanistan.

Security

Taliban Activity. There has been a notable drop in Taliban attacks on major cities over the past several months but the pace of attacks in the rural countryside have not dimished (according to the NYT).

ISKP and the Fight for Achin District. In 2015 the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) or Daesh moved into Achin district, Nangarhar province and displaced hundreds of villagers. The fight to regain the district lasted four years. In the fall of 2019 a combination of ANA SOF, Afghan Border Police, Afghan Local Police, ‘uprising militias’, Taliban, U.S. SOF, and U.S. air support delivered a resounding defeat of ISKP in Achin district. Some villagers have moved back in. But can the government hold the district – keeping ISKP and the Taliban away? Read “Islamic State’s Lingering Legacy in Afghanistan”, The Diplomat, February 5, 2020.

U.S. Contractor Abducted. Mark Frerichs, a 57-year old contractor has been kidnapped in Khost province on Friday, February 7, 2020. The likely abductors are the Haqqani network. He was traveling in the province while working for International Logistics Support. The FBI’s Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell is on the case and the U.S. military forces are very likely searching the area and gathering intel.

Increasing Crime in Kabul. Criminality in Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan as well has soared over the past several years. For some, turning to crime is a matter of survival. And there is a growth of well-armed and politically-connected criminal groups. Read more in “Kabul’s Expanding Crime Scene: The roots of today’s underworld”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, February 11, 2020.

The Insurgents

Mapping Taliban Activity. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has mapped out Taliban activity during 2018 and 2019. (ACLED, Jan 7, 2020).

Al Qaeda and IS. A three-page report provides a brief description of al Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan. It also provides a paragraph or two on the IMU and the ETIM. Al Qaeda and Islamic State Affiliates in Afghanistan, Congressional Research Service (CRS), January 31, 2020.

NATO and TCN

Europe – Almost 20 Years in Afghanistan. The European nations seem set on continuing their engagement in Afghanistan. The effort has been ongoing for almost 20 years. Read “Europe in Afghanistan: After Nearly 20 Years, What Has Been Achieved?”, The Diplomat, February 8, 2020.

NATO Ministerial in Brussels. The North Atlantic Treat Organization just completed a two-day conference were member state representatives gathered to discuss a broad range of issues. One of those issues was NATO’s role in Afghanistan. Some NATO informational documents about NATO in Afghanistan were updated to February 2020:

Will NATO Cut Back Its Troop Commitment? President Trumps ‘promise’ to reduce the troop level to 8,600 may come true over the next few months as the U.S. presidential election comes closer. What if Trump decides that 4,000 is attainable by the end of 2020? What will the European nations do? Some members of NATO and other troop contributing nations may look for exit ramps from the long conflict. NATO currently has about 8,000 troops in Afghanistan – many of them working in TAAC-North and TAAC-West.

Georgian Peacekeepers Return Home. Another rotation of Georgian troops has taken place in Mazar-e-Sharif. The contingent provide security and participate in fast-response operations. Their tour of duty is approximately seven months. (Agende.ge, Feb 10, 2020).

Australia Drawing Down Forces? Australia is touting the progress made by the ANDSF and is cutting back on troops deployed to that country. Around 100 troops from the Train, Advise, and Assist Command – Air (TAAC-Air), the Command Staff Academy, and other entities will return to Australia. Small teams of trainers and advisors will remain with selected organizations. Read more in “Australia’s evolving role in Afghan training missions”, Australian Department of Defence, February 1, 2020.

U.S. Forces and Topics

U.S. Budget Request for Afghanistan Lower . The U.S. military is set to spend its lowest amount on the 18-year long war in Afghanistan in nearly a decade. Cutting the amount of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for the Afghan Air Force by one third (159 to 53) is one contributing factor. Another planning factor is the decision to draw down to 8,600 troops (with or without a peace deal). Read more in “US military budget request for Afghanistan lowest in a decade”, Military Times, February 10, 2020.

Biden on Afghanistan. During a presidential debate on February 8 presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden made a comment that slightly offended some Afghan officials. (Gandhara Blog, Feb 11, 2020).

“There’s no possibility to uniting that country — no possibility at all of making it a whole country. But it is possible to see to it they’re not able to launch more attacks from the region on the United States of America.”

“A Grunt at Work” in the Hindu Kush. Colonel (Ret) Keith Nightingale writes about the lonely job of an infantryman at work in the mountains of Afghanistan during winter. A Grunt at Work, Small Wars Journal, February 1, 2020.

Buttigieg Worked with CIA in Afghanistan? A Democratic Presidential hopeful spent six months working for the Afghanistan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC). One news article recently published alludes to his association with the CIA. Well, the report tells us a little about Buttigieg, ATFC, and efforts to attack illicit financial networks – and it is interesting reading – but kinda fake news. See “Media darling Pete Buttigieg was in unit that worked with the CIA in Afghanistan”, The Gray Zone, February 7, 2020.

Another 9/11 if We Leave? If 13,000 American troops left Afghanistan would the country become a launching pad for a second terrorist attack on the scale of September 11, 2001? Some former generals and diplomats say no. (Task & Purpose, February 12, 2020).

ANDSF

Afghan SOF – Overrated? A retired U.S. Special Forces soldier with time in 3rd and 5th SFGA comes out strong against the prevailing narrative that the Afghan Commandos are a premier fighting force. He critiques the training, inability to maintain a red-amber-green cycle, threat of green-on-blue attacks, overuse, and lack of ANA SOF planning process as limiting factors. Read “Allies, Enemies, or Just Useless? A Special Forces Operator on Working with Afghan SOF”, SOFREP, February 10, 2020.

Insider Attacks. There seems to be a slight increase in attacks by Afghan security force members against U.S. and NATO troops. On Saturday, February 8, 2020 an Afghan policeman killed two Americans, wounded six other Americans, and killed up to eight Afghan SOF. The causes are difficult to ascertain – but it likely is a combination of Taliban infiltration, cultural differences (slights), disaffection with the U.S and Coalition troops, and other factors. Read “Green-on-Blue Attacks: Too Much, Too Often”, SOFREP, February 9, 2020.

Reduction in UH-60s. So the political pressure begins on the U.S. Department of Defense on its plan to reduce the Black Hawk helicopters for the Afghan Air Force (AAF) from 159 to 53. Senator Blumenthal (D-Conn) is a member of the Armed Services Committee and he is a bit perturbed. Could that be because the firm manufacturing UH-60s is headquartered in Connecticut? Hmmm. “Senator criticizes Pentagon plans to cut Black Hawks for Afghan air force”, Stars and Stripes, February 1, 2020.

Chinooks for Afghan SMW. In the latest Department of Defense budget request for Afghanistan it was revealed that the U.S. has plans to provide 10 CH-47 Chinook helicopters for the Afghan Special Mission Wing. The SMW operates helicopters at night enabling ANASOC and GCPSU units to operate during periods of darkness. (MENAFN, Feb 10, 2020).

Two Afghan Generals Suspended Due to Corruption. The 4th Brigade, 203rd Thunder Corps commander has been relieved as well as a two star general at the Ministry of Defense due to graft charges. Hmmm. These two gentlemen must have fallen from grace, . . . I mean, aren’t all Afghan generals . . . (MENAFN.com, Feb 9, 2020).

Peace Talks

An Agreement Near? President Trump has reportedly given provisional approval to a U.S. – Taliban peace agreement. The Taliban have indicated that the will institute a significant and enduring reduction in violence. If a 7-10 day cessation in hostilities holds then the next steps would be a signing of an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, the beginning of U.S. troops returning home, and the Taliban and Afghan government starting their talks. President Ghani seems to be on board.

Can Khalilzad Deliver? Kimberly Dozier provides some details of the ‘almost there’ peace agreement. Read “Secret Annexes, Backroom Deals: Can Zalmay Khalilazad Deliver Afghan Peace for Trump”, Time.com, February 13, 2020.

Dozier writes that some components of the peace deal include:

  • Taliban will reduce attacks on U.S. and Afghan troops
  • U.S. will withdraw much of its forces
  • Taliban agree to 7-day reduction in violence
  • U.S. to keep CT forces in Afghanistan
  • Taliban denounce terrorism and violent extremism
  • A monitoring mechanism will be put in place
  • Agreement of how CIA will operate in Taliban-controlled areas

Bombing the Taliban to the Peace Table. In 2019 the U.S. dropped a record number of bombs on Afghanistan (7,423). More than in 2018. But the Taliban still control / contest over half the countryside. The ramped-up air strikes are an effort to diminish Taliban strength, support the ANFSF, and to gain leverage in the ongoing talks with the Taliban. “Can We Bomb Afghanistan Into Peace?”, by Bonnie Kristian, Real Clear World, Feb 6, 2020.

Elections

No Progress. It has been a few months now and there is still no official winner of the Afghan presidential election. The Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission are at odds with each other. The process of auditing the election results is . . . still in progress.

Development and Economy

A Different Afghanistan. The staff of a humanitarian organization writes about the Afghanistan that they know. Afghanistan: Beyond the Headline, MEDAIR, January 28, 2020.

Drugs in Asia. The illicit drug economies in Asia present a complex set of challenges for governments and societies. This article reports on a recent regional meeting of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy (Oct 2019). Read “Reflections on Asia’s Drug Policies for the 2020s”, Afghanistan Research Evaluation Unit (AREU), February 8, 2020.

AUAF to Lose Funding? The American University of Afghanistan located in Kabul could be closing its doors with the expiration of a cooperative agreement between the university and USAID. One Republican congressman, Mike Waltz, is leading the effort to restore funding. Mike is a former U.S. Army Green Beret who served two tours in Afghanistan. (Florida Daily, Feb 5, 2020).

Paper – Role of Women in Afghan Economy. A 51-page PDF entitled The Role of Women in the Economic Development of Afghanistan is now available online. The paper, by a number of authors, is published by the University of Central Asia, Kyrgyz Republic, 2019.

U.S. ONDCP Report Feb 2020. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released the results of the annual U.S. Government estimate measuring poppy cultivation and potential opium production in Afghanistan. Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan decreased while pure opium production increased. (White House, Feb 7, 2020).

Regional Issues . . . the Neighbors

Betting on Uzbekistan. The U.S. State Department has rolled out its ‘new’ U.S. Strategy for Central Asia. Hidden in the verbiage are concerns for Afghanistan and how a more stable and secure Central Asia can help the hapless country to the south. Uzbekistan, of the several Central Asian countries, appears the likely candidate that the U.S. will work with the most in the near future. There is hope that an improved economic sector in the Central Asian states will have a ripple effect on Afghanistan’s economy. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Uzbekistan in early February where he stated that Uzbekistan can assist in bringing peace to Afghanistan.

See United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity, U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan, February 5, 2020.
Report. (report, 6 pages, PDF).

Read “Perspectives | US Strategy for Central Asia: An old recipe for a new situation”, Eurasia Net, February 6, 2020.

K2 Uzbekistan, Vets, Cancer, and the VA. Karshi Khanabad Airfield (K2 was a base in southern Uzbekistan used by the 5th Special Forces Group (supported by other Army service units) to launch Special Forces teams into Afghanistan during the initial invasion in the fall of 2001. U.S. troops would continue to be based at “K2” until 2005. Many of the “K2 Vets” are ill with or have died from cancer. Read more in “K2 Veterans Experiencing High Cancer Rate – VA Nonrespondent”, SOF News, February 5, 2020.

Afghanistan: India and Pakistan’s Battleground? A special report by the United States Institute for Peace explains the contest between Pakistan and India and why Afghanistan is caught in the middle. It is widely known that Pakistan supports the Taliban to ensure a weak Afghanistan is in its ‘rear area’ – affording Pakistan some strategic depth. Read more in a 24-page report (PDF) entitled “The India-Pakistan Rivalry in Afghanistan”, USIP, January 29, 2020.

Soleimani’s Death, Iran, and Afghanistan. The U.S. is on the lookout for possible action by Iran against American interests. Of concern is the proximity of Iran to the 14,000 service members currently stationed in Afghanistan. Iran has some reach into Afghanistan through several means. Iran has supplied sniper rifles, laser-guided rifles, night vision goggles, small surveillance drones, and sophisticated communications equipment to the Taliban. A big question is . . . will Iran step up support to the Taliban and other groups opposed to U.S. interests.

Read more in “What does Soleimani’s death mean for Afghanistan?”, The Hill, February 6, 2020. See also “Will Rising U.S. – Iran Tensions Spark Afghan Proxy War”, Small Wars Journal, February 10, 2020.

An additional factor are the return of Afghan members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade who fought for Iran in Syria. A few thousand of them have returned home to Afghanistan. See “The Return of Pro-Iranian Militia Fighters to Afghanistan Fuels Fears in Kabul, Washington”, Radio Free Liberty, February 7, 2020.

Commentary

Continue the TAA Mission – Best Hope for Future. Karl Nicolas Lindenaub provides a detailed and informative analysis of why peace talks will fail and argues that continuing the train, advise, and assist mission for Afghan SOF units, Territorial Force, and other specialty units is the best hope for the future. Read “Crossroads Afghanistan: Alternatives to a Forlorn Deal”, Strategy Bridge, February 10, 2020.

U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan – Off Course. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued its 46th quarterly report. The pub reflects how the United States is propping up a corrupt and weak pauper state. At least that is how this article portrays the report – “The Limits of U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan, by the Numbers”, The New York Times Magazine, February 7, 2020.

IIA and Timely News. Recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan have illustrated how the U.S. is slow to put its ‘version’ of events out on social media in time to counteract ‘fake news’ by our adversaries. We have a robust Inform and Influence Activities capability but somehow fail to use it quickly enough. One example is the downing of the surveillance and communications aircraft in Afghanistan where two pilots lost their life. Read more in “A U.S. Plane Crashed in Afghanistan. Why So Many Believed a CIA Chief Was On It”, Time, February 2, 2020.

Afghanistan’s Monarchy and a Lost Opportunity. Carlo J.V. Caro, a researcher on U.S. foreign policy and terrorism, argues that the international community lost a chance to stabilize Afghanistan when it put its hopes on Hamid Karzi instead of King Mohammed Zahir Shah in June 2002. Read “Afghan Kings and the Failure of U.S. Military Intervention”, Real Clear Defense, February 12, 2020.

AREU Ranks High in Afghan Research. The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit has once again come out in the top tier of think tanks that specialize in Central Asia. It ranked 3rd among 63 like organizations in the 2019 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report published by the Lauder Institute at the University of Pennsylvania.

Reports, Pubs, and Books

Info Paper – Psychology & Behavioral Sciences in Advising. Two members of the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group have co-authored an information paper that argues that future Marine Corps operations will require advisors who have enhanced critical thinking skills. The authors recommend the adoption of a teachable package of instruction that will increase the emotional intelligence of Marines and increase their ability to wade through the OODA Cycle Faster. Read their 7-page essay (PDF) entitled Information Paper: The Application of Psychology and the Behavioral Sciences in Advising, by Michael G. Murray II and Major Kirk Johnson, January 2020.

Afghanistan Background Brief. An 18-page report provides information on U.S. – Taliban negotiations, the Afghan political situation, U.S. military presence and operations, the Taliban and IS, ANDSF development and deployment, regional dynamics, U.S. aid, and the Afghan economy. Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy in Brief, Congressional Research Service, January 31, 2020.

SIGAR Quarterly Report. The January 2020 Quarterly Report to Congress is now online. The 222-page PDF is a culmination of reporting about the Afghan conflict covering the months of October through December. Read “SIGAR Quarterly Report on Afghanistan – Jan 30, 2020“, SOF News, January 31, 2020.

SIGAR -Special Report. The Human Cost of Reconstruction in Afghanistan details in quantitative terms the number of people killed, wounded, or kidnapped to accomplish the reconstruction and stabilization of Afghanistan. The total (a conservative estimate) was 5,135 casualties. Read the 27-page report, SIGAR 20-25-SP, February 2020.

SIGAR Testimony to Congress. On January 28, 2020 John Sopko, the head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction testified before the U.S. House of Representatives. SIGAR submitted a 26-page report entitled Risks to Sustainable Peace in Afghanistan. The report high-lights several areas of concern:

  • Widespread Insecurity
  • Underdeveloped Civil Policing Capability
  • Endemic Corruption
  • Sluggish Economic Growth
  • Illicit Narcotics Trade
  • Threats to Women’s Rights
  • Reintegration of Ex-combatants
  • Restricted Oversight

Videos

Insider Threat – Preventive Measures, by Jack Pagano, COMISAF Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT), International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), 2012, 4 minutes. Posted on YouTube by Afghan War News.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veUTnZTP4WQ

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Photo: Guardians at a checkpoint at Dande Patan District along the Durand Line – 203rd Corps, Afghanistan.


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