AFGHANISTAN: Afghan insurgency still a potent force
Emily Hsu and Beth DeGrasse

February 2006

Since they reorganized their forces in Pakistan in 2003, Taliban and other anti-government militia have sought to disrupt democratization efforts and sow a climate of fear in Afghanistan. As a result, violence has crept back onto the international radar screen in the last couple of years, a brutal reminder the insurgency is far from defeated.

This rise in bloodshed is particularly problematic today, as U.S. forces begin this summer to transfer control of insurgent-heavy regions of the country to NATO. The U.S. Institute of Peace held a recent special session of its Afghanistan Working Group dedicated to this topic, with counterinsurgency experts Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation and Colonel David Lamm of National Defense University. Beth DeGrasse, coordinator of USIP’s Afghanistan Working Group moderated the discussion.

Insurgent Violence on the Rise
Despite forecasts last spring predicting its imminent demise, the insurgency in Afghanistan has maintained its presence in the southern and eastern provinces, employing new terrorist tactics and attracting foreign support. The year 2005 proved to be the country’s deadliest since the U.S. invasion in 2001. In that year alone, violent confrontations produced approximately 1,500 casualties, including the deaths of almost 100 U.S. soldiers, according to the Pentagon. While Afghanistan is often regarded as a “success” compared to Iraq, statistics suggest that Afghanistan is just as dangerous, if not more so, for U.S. soldiers. In the spring of 2005, U.S. troop casualties reached 1.6 per 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, compared with a casualty rate of 0.9 per 1,000 in Iraq, according to The Century Foundation’s Afghanistan Watch.

Afghanistan has also proven to be increasingly perilous for NGO staff and other civilians operating in the field. The NGO casualty rate in Afghanistan is estimated to be greater than that of almost any conflict or postconflict setting, surpassing those of Angola, Somalia, and Liberia, according to a recent report from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office and CARE. As a result, some NGOs have either withdrawn from the country or pulled back international staff to Kabul, relying on local Afghans to carry out critical assistance programs.

Insurgents Change Their Tactics
In response to the U.S. military’s bolstered counterinsurgency efforts, insurgents are changing their tactics. Rather than combating superior armed forces, insurgents are focusing on “soft targets” like government officials, judges, NGO personnel, election workers, parliamentary candidates, religious leaders and teachers, and former Taliban members who laid down arms to join the political process.

Insurgents are also adopting new terrorist methods, such as kidnappings, assassinations, suicide attacks, beheadings, and remote-controlled bombings. A new buzzword, “Iraqization,” has been coined to characterize the adoption by Afghan insurgents of tactics used in the Iraqi rebellion. Prior to 2004, suicide attacks in Afghanistan were rare: Only five such bombings took place between 2001 and 2003. In 2005, however, a wave of more than 20 suicide attacks occurred—more than twice the number of suicide attacks of the year before.

Who Are the Insurgents?
The insurgency is believed to comprise a diverse fusion of actors, primarily Taliban fighters and former Mujahedeen—the Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin (HiG)—who battled Soviet invaders in the 1980s. The movement has also begun to attract support from the international realm, including Al Qaeda, Pakistani Islamic militants, and foreign jihadists who are notorious for employing extreme tactics in places such as Iraq, Chechnya, and Israel. According to Jones, foreign contingents make up the insurgency’s most lethal and effective elements. Foreign militants are committed to fighting the enemy twenty-four hours a day; Taliban fighters, on the other hand, include ordinary Afghan citizens who might participate in the insurgency one day, and the next day resume their jobs as farmers.

Structurally, the Afghan insurgency is a blend between the highly decentralized Iraq insurgency and a relatively rigid guerrilla command structure like that of the Salvadoran Farabundo Marti Liberation Front. While the Afghan insurgency uses a number of operational structures, according to Jones, one typical model consists of four entities: an area commander, often located in Pakistan; guerrilla fighters; civilian logistical support networks; and elements of financial and political assistance from the drug trade and Pakistani intelligence.

Forthcoming Shifts in U.S., NATO Missions a Cause for Concern
The rise in insurgent activity is especially worrisome, as the United States and NATO effect major changes in their missions this year. Until recently, a total of about 28,000 U.S. and international troops operated throughout the country – roughly 19,000 U.S. troops in the southern and eastern sections of Afghanistan where insurgent activity is strongest, and some 9,000 NATO International Security Assistance Force soldiers in the northern and western regions. These figures, however, are changing as the United States cuts its forces by 2,500 and cedes control of southern provinces to international forces. NATO, meanwhile, is increasing its forces to 15,000 and expanding its presence from the north to six southern and central Afghan provinces: Daikondi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Oruzgan, and Zabul.

The expanded role of NATO into the south is problematic. Although NATO has approved more “robust” rules of engagement for its troops in its expanded mission, the organization still lacks the capacity and the will to aggressively root out insurgent forces. Moreover, NATO foreign ministers have resisted any major role in counterinsurgency activities, insisting instead on a peacekeeping posture focused on “stabilization and security” assistance for the Afghan government.

Panelists agreed that a sustained offensive is critical to weakening the insurgency. As a result of its intensified counterinsurgency strategy in the last year, U.S. Special Operations Forces have made great strides in tempering a rebel movement that is determined to undermine peace and stability in Afghanistan, according to David Lamm. U.S. forces have ventured into remote locations and forced insurgents out of hiding and into battle. Included in these missions is an effort to eradicate insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan—special operations units traversed as far as ten kilometers across the border to strike at insurgent command centers. Broadly, the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy rests on five pillars: defeating the Taliban, enabling the Afghanistan security structure, sustaining area ownership, reconstructing the country, and engaging regional states, Lamm said.

Given the new insurgent tactics, it is important for decisionmakers to consider a number of key points:

The expansion of NATO forces is not a substitute for the current U.S. counterinsurgency campaign. Intense military pressure against the insurgency is vital to demonstrate continued commitment and to ensure that insurgent forces remain on the run and are unable to regain their strength. This includes eradicating insurgent sanctuaries near the Afghan-Pakistani border and bolstering border security and intelligence sharing with the Pakistani government. The U.S. should reconsider its decision to transfer responsibility of southern provinces to NATO forces and consider an alternate division of responsibilities.

If control of the south is shifted from U.S. to NATO forces, there should be some means by which to request the deployment of specialized counterinsurgency forces from participating countries.

The current mission statement of NATO as a peacekeeping force is inadequate to meet present demands in Afghanistan. If the Dutch government’s national caveats and NATO’s rules of engagement remain unchanged, a modification in security posture will likely be needed.

This USIPeace Briefing was written by Emily Hsu and Beth DeGrasse. The views expressed are not those of USIP, which does not advocate specific policies.

The United States Institute of Peace ( is an independent nonpartisan national institution stablished and funded by Congress. Our mission is to help prevent, manage, and resolve violent conflicts by empowering others with knowledge, skills, and resources, as well as by our direct involvement in peacebuilding efforts.