Has ISIL Rise Triggered Rethink in Afghan Strategy?

By By Andrew Drwiega | January 9, 2015
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So the troops are coming back from Afghanistan and the mission is over. Really? Haven’t we heard this somewhere before?

On Aug. 31, 2010, President Obama announced the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) confirming: “We’ve removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. We’ve closed or transferred to the Iraqis hundreds of bases. And we have moved millions of pieces of equipment out of Iraq. This completes a transition to Iraqi responsibility for their own security.” All well and good, it seemed.

There was a small caveat. “Going forward, a transitional force of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq with a different mission: advising and assisting Iraq’s Security Forces, supporting Iraqi troops in targeted counterterrorism missions, and protecting our civilians.”


But the political turmoil that remained in Iraq and the rest of the region, particularly Syria, was not resolved and has drawn the U.S. and coalition back after less than four years.

At time of writing (mid-December) the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL - also ISIS and IS), estimated at around 31,000 by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), hold strategic cities and areas of land from Aleppo in northwest Syria to areas around Baghdad in Iraq, particularly those with a predominantly Sunni population.

More than 1,000 air strikes on ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq have been flown since August, with more oc-curring almost on a daily basis. The situation has demanded the formation of a new Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), led by the Army’s Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, to focus on Syrian and Iraqi operations. The U.S. currently has a military presence in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Irbil, as well as in neighboring Kuwait.

On Dec. 8, General Terry announced that an extra 1,500 allied troops would be available to bolster the 3,100 U.S. troops already in Iraq who are training and assisting Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

U.S. Army aviation Boeing Apache AH-64 attack helicopters are flying missions in Iraq again. AAI RQ-7B Shadows are present too, lending perhaps to manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) operations.

But the proven presence of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) over the last few months has heightened the risk for helicopter operations. Several Iraqi military helicopters, including an Mi-35M, have been downed over the past few months. These weapons were most likely acquired when ISIL forces overran the Syrian Tabqa airbase in August, reportedly netting themselves MANPADS including SA-16s. It is unknown whether or not these missiles are still active and deployed by ISIL.

This brings us back to NATO’s official announcement on Dec. 2 of the cessation of its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission to Afghanistan, which began in late 2001. In that message it was also revealed that all NATO foreign ministers of members states together with 14 partner countries had agreed that a new mission, Resolute Support, would begin in Afghanistan on Jan. 1, 2015.

It is planned that 12,000 troops taken from all signatory nations will be based inside Afghanistan to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that “Resolute Support will be a non-combat mission.” The deeper background is that international funding will also be kept flowing to ensure that Afghan forces keep step in terms of their capability as they develop. Even with this new mission, Reuters news agency reported that President Obama has already authorized U.S. forces to continue engaging in combat into 2015.

In May of this year, the Presidential policy was to “reduce [U.S. military presence in Afghanistan] by roughly half [from 9,800], consolidating our troops in Kabul and on Bagram Airfield. One year later, by the end of 2016, we will draw down to a normal embassy presence in Kabul, with a security assistance component, as we have done in Iraq.”

But this may now be scrapped. The surprising and sudden rise of ISIL in Syria and Iraq showed a lack of enduring understanding of the effects of military withdrawal. Let’s hope history is not about to be repeated in Afghanistan.



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