THREAT ENVIRONMENT AND SECURITY CONDITIONS
The Afghanistan and National Defense Forces ANDSF continue to face a resilient insurgency and a myriad of terrorist and criminal networks; however, the Afghan Government remains in control of all major population centers and key lines of communication. The Taliban did not achieve any of the stated campaign objectives of its 2016 summer campaign, Operation Omari. Taliban territorial gains during this reporting period were fleeting, as the ANDSF consistently retook district centers and population areas within days of a loss. Although security conditions vary across the provinces, the Taliban have exploited their localized and temporary successes by portraying these events as major strategic shifts through the use of social media and other public information campaigns.
Consistent with historical trends, overall levels of violence increased during the traditional 2016 spring and summer fighting season with a brief lull during Ramadan (June 5 to July 6, 2016). Reported casualties for both the ANDSF and the Taliban continued their upward trend from the previous two reporting periods. The increase in ANDSF casualties can be attributed, in part, to an increase in the number of insurgent attacks on fixed ANDSF positions including inadequately protected checkpoints. Insurgent fighting in urban areas and continued use of high-profile attacks contributed to the trend of high civilian casualties seen in the last several reporting periods. Women and children also continue to be affected disproportionately by the conflict.
The ANDSF largely repelled insurgent attacks in Helmand Province and several attempts to isolate Kunduz City in July, August, and October 2016. Although the ANDSF experienced minor setbacks during these and other insurgent offensives, they frequently regained lost terrain. Between June and August 2016, violence in Nangarhar Province was higher than usual, primarily due to Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) and coalition efforts to disrupt and degrade ISIL-K. The number of high-profile attacks in Kabul was lower than during the same time period last year; however, insurgents did perpetrate several attacks that garnered public attention, including attacks on the American University of Kabul in August and on the Ministry of Defense (MoD) headquarters in September 2016.
Following the May 21, 2016, death of Mullah Mansour, the Taliban quickly appointed Mullah Haybatalluh Akhundzada as their leader. Since then, the Taliban have largely coalesced around Haybatalluh with limited public fracturing or dissension. Haybatallah’s appointment has not had a major effect – either positive or negative – on the Taliban’s operational effectiveness.
Although al Qaeda’s core leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region has been degraded, elements continue to seek safe haven on both sides of the border to regenerate and conduct attack planning. The continued development of an al Qaeda affiliate in the region, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), highlights the dynamic nature of the region’s terrorist and militant landscape, posing risks to the mission and to U.S. interests.
ISIL-K continues to focus on establishing itself in Nangarhar Province in the east, although ASSF counterterrorism operations and ANDSF clearing operations – with USFOR-A enabling support – have diminished ISIL-K’s ability to build a base of support. In addition, ISIL-K’s aggressive targeting of Taliban elements in the area and its use of harsh tactics similar to ISIL’s core in Iraq and Syria, have alienated the group from the local population. Although ISIL-K’s operational capacity has diminished, U.S. and Afghan forces remain focused against the group.
Consistent mid-level military-to-military dialogue between Afghanistan and Pakistan on specific issues, such as the shared threat from ISIL-K, and occasional discussions at higher levels of the military and government early in the reporting period, were encouraging. At the same time, militant groups, including Taliban and Haqqani senior leadership, retained safe havens inside Pakistani territory. Sustained Pakistani efforts to disrupt active Haqqani Network threats were not observed during the reporting period. The United States continues to be clear with Pakistan about steps it should take to improve the security environment and deny safe havens to terrorist and extremist groups.
Cross-border firing incidents in June and July 2016 at the Torkham Gate border crossing have also complicated efforts to increase Afghanistan-Pakistan cooperation on both peace and reconciliation and counterterrorism issues. Despite these and other complications, the United States continues to support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process for a negotiated resolution of the conflict in Afghanistan, and is working with international partners, to set conditions for a peaceful political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban and other militant groups. On September 22, 2016, the Afghan government signed a peace agreement with the Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin group, demonstrating the potential for insurgent groups to participate in an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political reconciliation process.
The ANDSF effectively executed their 2016 spring and summer campaign plan and largely maintained their commitment to implementing key reforms and operational imperatives as part of a sustainable security strategy to allocate forces across the country more effectively. This progress was most evident in late August and October 2016 when the ANDSF repelled several major Taliban attacks against provincial capitals in several parts of the country, quickly retaking lost territory from the Taliban. Although the ANDSF denied the insurgency any strategic successes, the ANDSF have also demonstrated the need for continued U.S. and coalition support to address persistent capability gaps and deficiencies.
Despite an increasingly offensive-oriented strategy, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) offensive maneuver capability is still limited. The ANDSF also lack a mature operational readiness cycle to ensure forces are well-rested and well-trained before returning to combat. During Operation Shafaq, corruption and the ANDSF’s limited logistics and personnel management capabilities hindered their ability to make lasting gains in reducing insurgent influence in various parts of the country.
ANDSF capabilities in aviation, logistics, combined arms operations and conducting offensive clearing operations continue to improve, but the ANDSF require further development before they can consistently pressure the insurgency. ANA-ANP coordination for planning processes and for major, offensive cross-pillar3 operations have also showed modest improvement. ANA corps are better utilizing their organic indirect fires, including mortars and D-30 howitzers, and increasingly integrating ground-based fires with aerial fires from the Afghan Air Force (AAF). The Afghan National Police (ANP) are becoming more effective at exercising command and control over ANP pillars within their regions, but areas such as personnel accountability remain key deficiencies. Ministry of Interior (MoI) reforms also continued to help address Afghan Local Police (ALP) personnel accountability and effectiveness shortcomings. In addition, ANP and ALP personnel continue to abandon static checkpoints more frequently than ANA personnel due to leadership deficiencies and threats of Taliban attacks on vulnerable checkpoints.
The ASSF remain the most capable element of the Afghan forces and one of the best special operations forces in the region. Although U.S. forces often provide enabling support to the ASSF for counterterrorism operations, the ASSF are capable of conducting independent operations using their organic intelligence and aviation assets. Because of ASSF proficiency, the ANDSF frequently misuses ASSF elements for more conventional missions, which degrades the ASSF’s operational readiness.
The AAF’s capability to provide airlift, casualty evacuation (CASEVAC),4 and organic aerial fires continue to improve as the Department of Defense (DoD) fields more aircraft to the AAF and as its pilots and crews gain operational experience. With the fielding of 12 additional MD- 530 attack helicopters during the reporting period and several more months of operational employment of the A-29 light attack aircraft, the AAF demonstrated increasing effectiveness in providing aerial fires in support of ANA ground forces. The use of A-29s and MD-530s in particular were critical to the success of ANDSF offensive clearing operations during Operation Shafaq. After a little more than six months of conducting combat operations, the ANDSF is proving increasingly effective at integrating the A-29 into operations. The AAF is also working more closely with the ANA to improve aerial fires integration through the further development of Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators (ATAC).
Disparity among Afghan leadership at all levels continues to result in inconsistent progress among the ANA corps and ANP zones. When the MoD, MoI, and ANDSF leadership are actively involved, competent, and not corrupt, the Afghans have made solid progress in implementing and sustaining needed reforms to improve ANDSF capabilities. After leadership changes during this reporting period, several corps have conducted effective cross-pillar operations, commanders have increased operational effectiveness by integrating combat enablers into operations, and senior ministry officials have demonstrated foresight in strategic management and provision of support to the ANDSF. In contrast, in ANA corps where leadership is weak or corrupt on a consistent basis, and in many parts of the MoI and ANP, capabilities often lag or regress, hindering overall operational capability and impeding progress on instituting transparent and accountable systems and processes.
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