ISW in Brief: General Allen's testimony highlights progress, remaining challenges in Afghanistan

by Isaac Hock

March 22, 2012

On Tuesday and Thursday, General John Allen, the commander of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, testified before the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. Testifying alongside Under Secretary for Defense Dr. James Miller, Gen. Allen highlighted the progress made by US surge forces in southern Afghanistan and the growth of the Afghan Security Forces. According to Gen. Allen, counterinsurgency operations in Helmand and Kandahar—the historic heartland of the Taliban movement—have “severely degraded the insurgency” and “in the later part of 2011…the Afghan Taliban were the away team.” In addition, since 2008, the Afghan security forces have grown from 140,000 to approximately 330,000, and the quality of those forces has also increased.

Yet, both men warned that important security and governance challenges remain in Afghanistan. The security situation in eastern Afghanistan—which did not receive the majority of the US surge forces—has not improved and has deteriorated in some districts due to the growing influence of the Haqqani network. The Haqqani network and their Pakistani sanctuaries, according to Gen. Allen, “continue to be a threat to the campaign.” 

House members of both parties peppered Gen. Allen and Dr. Miller with questions concerning overall force numbers and the transition timeline. According to Gen. Allen, transition is not an end goal, but a means to defeating the insurgency. Gen. Allen stated that, historically, few insurgencies have been defeated by outside counterinsurgents: “In the long run our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces. Transition then is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the way out.” During 2012, NATO forces will have three priorities: consolidating security gains in southern Afghanistan, building the Afghan security forces and increasingly place the ANSF in the lead during operations, and expanding the Kabul “security bubble” in eastern Afghanistan. By October 2012, the remaining surge forces will redeploy, and around 68,000 US forces will remain in country. According to Gen. Allen, no decisions have been made about further force cuts, and any decisions will only take place in the fall after he has had a chance to review progress made in 2012.

While the number of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan beyond October 2012 remains undecided, the US mission will gradually transition from leading combat operations and partnering with Afghan forces to mentoring and performing residual counter-terrorism missions. Operations in 2013 will be a mix of missions, depending on the area of the country and the local security conditions. By the end of 2013, Afghan forces will be in the lead for security across the country, and as part of this shift, US officials anticipate decreasing the number of US forces in country. In 2014, US and NATO forces, while they will remain engaged in combat operations through 2014, will move into a supporting role, and by the end of year “the ANSF will be responsible for the security of Afghanistan.”

As Gen. Allen stated, NATO and Afghan forces face a challenging fight in Eastern Afghanistan against the Haqqani network and other allied groups. The Haqqani presence in southeastern Afghanistan threatens “the strategic center of gravity, which is Kabul and the security zone around Kabul.” In a report published this week, The Haqqani Network: A Strategic Threat, ISW Senior Analyst Jeffrey Dressler examines this issue in detail. He writes: “the Haqqanis are currently Afghanistan’s most capable and potent insurgent group, and they continue to maintain close operational and strategic ties with al-Qaeda and their affiliates.” In addition to maintaining sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Haqqani network is Pakistan’s primary proxy force in Afghanistan. Over the past several years, the Haqqani network has steadily expanded from their traditional strongholds in Khost and Paktia provinces and now maintains influence and the ability to conduct operations throughout much of southeastern Afghanistan. Additionally, the organization has carried out numerous spectacular attacks in Kabul and has recently expanded their presence in the provinces surrounding Kabul, particularly in Logar and Wardak, but also in Nangarhar, Laghman, and Kapisa provinces.

Even as NATO prepares to shift its mission from counterinsurgency to security force assistance in other areas of the country, NATO must conduct a sustained, well-resourced operation against the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in 2012 and beyond. Afghan forces will be unable to defeat the Haqqani network on their own. Likewise, special operation forces and drone strikes alone cannot tackle these challenges. While raiding and disrupting insurgent activity will be a necessary part of the strategy, only clearing and holding insurgent strongholds with conventional ground forces and transitioning a stable situation to a capable Afghan force will produce security gains in the east.


Isaac Hock is a Research Analyst at ISW.