Afghan military looks to bigger bases while closing checkpoints in hostile Taliban territory
CAMP MAIWAND, Afghanistan — Taliban raids like the one on a small outpost in Wardak province that killed 11 of his soldiers earlier this month are a vexing problem for Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq Safi.
But soon the remote, often undermanned checkpoints will be shuttered in favor of larger bases.
Safi, who heads a brigade in the army’s 203rd Corps, commands troops who guard two highways into the Afghan capital from Wardak and Logar provinces south of Kabul. Some of his checkpoints, vulnerable to attack, are difficult to supply and reinforce, he said.
The general closed several such outposts in Logar over the winter and plans to do the same in Wardak this spring, with the aim of forming bands of larger bases, each with about 40 troops, along the key highways.
It’s part of a larger move by the Afghan Defense Ministry to preserve its shrinking military by pulling troops from far-flung checkpoints, sometimes manned by as few as four soldiers in areas where the population is sympathetic to the Taliban, and massing them at larger camps in government-held territory.
“If there is Taliban territory and people are against the government, we will not want to make checkpoints there, because it may be risky,” Safi said.
Critics say this amounts to abandoning large swaths of the country to the insurgents, which could embolden the militant group as it negotiates with American diplomats on the terms of a potential peace settlement, including the withdrawal of foreign forces.
But the Afghan military says larger outposts will be stronger and will face less risk of being overrun.
“Our goal is to decrease the number of our forces in areas where there is more threat,” said Mohammad Zubair Arif, Defense Ministry deputy spokesman. “These new bases will be able to not only maintain security of their areas, but also conduct attack operations and establish ambushes.”
Units throughout the country, like Safi’s, are already testing out the new plan, Arif said.
U.S.-backed closures U.S. advisers have long pushed for a consolidation of the bases, which they have said contribute to high casualty rates, low morale, soldier desertion and recruiting shortfalls. In a June 2016 semiannual report to Congress on Afghan security, the Pentagon said the use of static checkpoints — an estimated 8,400 between the army and police — left Afghan security forces spread too thin.
In December 2017, an updated edition of the report said the Defense Ministry agreed to reduce the number of checkpoints. By late last year, however, there had been no progress with that agreement and officials said the number of checkpoints may have been growing.
“Many of these checkpoints are tactically unsound and present opportunities for the enemy,” officials said in the latest edition of the report from December 2018. “The overwhelming majority of successful Taliban attacks against [security forces] continue to occur at poorly manned checkpoints.”
The report, which noted a steep rise in casualties during checkpoint operations during the last half of 2018, said Taliban raids on such posts were “by far the largest source of effective enemy-initiated attacks,” ahead of improvised explosive blasts and mine strikes.
This winter was a particularly bloody one for Afghan troops across the country, with 39% more security incidents recorded in December to February than the same period a year earlier, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported last month.
Deaths and injuries among security forces were 31% higher during that period than a year earlier, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan told SIGAR, and nearly half of those casualties occurred during checkpoint security operations — bad news for a force that has shrunk to its lowest strength levels since the withdrawal of most international forces at the end of 2014.
Concerns of Taliban gains There is strong public and political pressure to maintain checkpoints around villages and along highways. Politicians push to keep the checkpoints, which they see as preserving the appearance of security, active and retired Afghan generals told Stars and Stripes.
“Parliament members wanted their areas secured that they can win more votes from their areas, so they were pushing the government for more and more checkpoints,” said retired Brig. Gen. Naqeebullah Safi.
One Afghan lawmaker, however, blamed the military leadership for failures at the checkpoints.
Soldiers would not have been under so much threat if their leaders could keep them supplied, said Ali Akbar Qasimi, a parliament member representing Ghazni province. Taking away smaller bases also removes one of the few checks on the insurgents’ movements, said the former head of the defense committee in the lower house.
“This will create huge movement routes to the enemy,” Qasimi said. “They can freely move from one district into another, engage more with locals and easily recruit fighters, and also empower their financial resources by collecting taxes from people.”
People living further from the highways in Logar and Wardak have told Abdul Raziq Safi that they’re not happy with his plan to close certain bases, he said. Removing the checkpoints does increase the chance the Taliban will regain control in those areas, he said.
Some analysts say pulling away from hostile territory also signals weakness at a critical time in the war, now in its 18th year, and is ineffective as a counterinsurgency strategy.
“The closure of these bases is a troubling sign of the times, an acknowledgment that areas of Taliban strength and control aren’t worth trying to defend or take back,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center.
As of October, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan assessed that the Taliban controlled or influenced about 17% of the country’s territory, home to about one in 10 Afghans, largely in the south and northwest, SIGAR reported. One-quarter of Afghanistan was up for grabs, with neither the Taliban nor the government in control there. The military has since ceased assessing the control data, SIGAR reported last month.
Ghazni province, much of which was assessed as contested territory last fall, has faced relentless Taliban pressure in the past year, said Qasimi, the member of parliament, who fears the militants may gain from the new strategy.
“This new plan means that they (the military) just want to hand over some areas to the enemies,” he said.
Zubair Babakarkhail and Nawab Momand contributed to this report.