How We Lost the North

by Joshua Foust on 10/12/2010 · 26 comments

I have a piece up at The Atlantic:

Unfortunately, in most places in the north where security has deteriorated, one finds the common theme of Western inattention. The ISAF has focused all of its attention on the south, and to a lesser extent the east, of the country. After all, the predominantly ethnic Pashtun Taliban, our stated target and the perceived leader of the insurgency, operates out of the Pashtun-dominated south and the eastern border region with Pakistan. It has been an article of faith for the U.S. and its partners for years that the insurgency in Afghanistan is a Pashtun phenomenon, driven by ethnic resentment and Islamist ideology. That assumption has led us to ignore the north and allowed Afghanistan’s insurgencies, which it turns out are not exclusively Pashtun at all, to move into the relative vacuum there. [As a result,] groups like the IMU and HiG have gained control of vast swaths of territory.

More there, obviously. I had written this before Governor Omar’s death in Takhar; there’s more happening in the area that deserves its own post. Maybe when I have a chance to sleep and let my brain recover some (it’s busybusybusy these days).

Anyway, comment away!

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Don Anderson October 12, 2010 at 10:08 am

Great work Joshua…The only thing I would add is that this was an insurgent operational plan from the start. I met with Mohammed Omar(RIP) a few weeks ago, and he was still not happy with the amount of emphasis on Kunduz.

He mentioned that the US forces were slow to respond and really just working on mentoring the Police and not focused on eliminating the zones of persistence. And he too, lamented the crazy South only focus of the Surge as a kin watching the back of the house and keeping the front door open. Another big loss in this war.

Balkh is getting hot, Jowzgan, Bagdhis, Kunduz, Takhar, incredible set back, no response from ISAF.

Simon October 12, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Another factor contributing to the deteriorating security situation in the area around Kunduz seems to be the existence of longstanding intra- communal, ethnically charged land conflicts which are exploited by insurgents.

Source makes an interesting read:


b October 13, 2010 at 1:22 am

The piece is missing the one big reason the north is going down.

Moving the supply line from Pakistan to the Northern Distribution Network made the roads in the north a strategic target. ISAF should have anticipated this and should have reinforced the north when that line was established. But it did not.

The “Taliban” of course did and immediately put resources onto that new prime target.

Capt. Monkey October 14, 2010 at 3:54 am

I think you’re actually off-target with that. Josh, I love you brother, but I think you’re missing a key fact as well. The actual bulk of issues in the north lie in the Kunduz corridor running from Pul-i-Khumri to Kunduz to Tajikistan. The northern distribution runs from Termez, Uzbekistan to Mazar-i-Sharif (well, really just east of the city) and then down to Pul-i-Khumri and on to other parts of the city. Now, what is distinguishing about this Kunduz corridor? It does, as a matter of fact, have an increased population of Pashtuns, relative to other parts of the north.

Admittedly, there are plenty of ambushes along the Ring Road North just to the northwest of PeK (towards MeS) and security is deteroriating in other places (such as increased threat in MeS–corresponding to increased threat across the country).

Yes, we (ISAF) neglected the north. As a result, that region poses unique and difficult challenges, not least of which is a confused C2 structure in which provincial reconstruction teams are the battlespace owners and US military forces are in an advice and assist role to ANP.

Nevertheless, the greatest threat in the north rests in and around Kunduz (Imam Saheeb, Charrah Dara, Kunduz, Baglani-Jadid, and other districts) and to a slightly lesser degree in the extreme western portion of RC-North (Ghowrmach district of Badghis Province–which in and of itself contributes to the obfuscation of unity of effort as half of Badghis rests in RC-West). Of course RC-North needs more funding and more effort, but so does all of Afghanistan…


Joshua Foust October 14, 2010 at 7:56 am

Andy, I’m inclined to agree, but it’s a bit wider than a corridor. Takhar is falling to pieces, and even Samangan and Balkh are seeing a steady rise of no-go areas and Taliban infiltration. It is expanding.

Joel Hafvenstein October 14, 2010 at 10:06 am

It’s not just Badghis out in the northwest: Faryab is on fire this year, and the little mountain pocket of south Jawzjan & west Sar-i-Pul has been an insurgents’ playground for the better part of two years.

But it’s true, there are no fireworks anywhere else in the north to compete with Kunduz and northern Baghlan, and (while I know Josh deals sternly with Pashtun reductionism) surely that’s not unrelated to the strength of the Pashtun networks there.

Joshua Foust October 14, 2010 at 10:09 am

I’ll never deny that Pashtun networks can enable the insurgency. Sinno’s entire argument is that it is the specific structure of Pashtun social networks that allowed the Taliban to expand as rapidly as it did in the 1990s.

What I react against is reductionism, as you say: blaming the entire insurgency on Pashtuns and nothing else. I’d never say Pashtuns don’t make up the majority of the insurgency. They do.

Boris Sizemore October 14, 2010 at 9:45 am

ISAF made a stragegic decision about two years ago. It was a classic “rope a dope.” The insurgents were shocked that we would put all the marbles on Helmand(Marjah??) and Kandahar.
They said “sure, we will take the hits in the South, and the rest of you bust a move elsewhere.”

They just moved with gusto into the clear north and now beseige Jalalabad and are pushing us out of Kunar step by step in the East. We are taking pot shots and IEDs in Kandahar and drinking tea, and taking huge casualties every week.

Bad plan, telegraphed Kandahar for most of year(giving them time to set up for the siege) and left the Insurgents happier than pigs in mud. Good job “We, at ISAF”

If this was Chiang Kai Shek, I could understand, but the One Eyed King is not Chairman Mao, no reason to make it so easy for them to achieve strategic victory and surround the capital slowly but surely.

It is obvious who is the best at……..shape clear hold build…The Emirate of Afghanistan should be writing the next manual not the brains at Leavenworth.

Its not how many forces you have, it is how you use them, living in an FOB point A and back to point A never works.

Bad work all around by the wisemen at Eggers.

Capt. Monkey October 15, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I’m in Jbad now. I don’t perceive a “significant” worsening of security here than when I was here four years ago.

Kunar though. Whew boy. That place has fallen apart at the seams and needs some serious work. I wonder if we have the heart (or stomach) to do that…

Your point is not lost on this one, though…

Steve Maghribi October 14, 2010 at 9:53 am

Karzai on his last trip to Kandahar ordered that the security road blocks were to dismantled. This eliminates the key feature of the current plan. What is left now? Not very much, but we sure are buying some huge generators to leave for them when we are gone.

Steve Maghribi October 14, 2010 at 9:57 am

The funniest part of the whole thing, is that we allow the Insurgents still to shut down the cell service every night. The ministers in Kabul say that it would cost to much to repair the towers.

Same with the electricity from Kajaki, they rate charge for us. Compromise and pretend we have control, not working. Provide security first, cell phones and tea drinking later…

Don Anderson October 14, 2010 at 10:14 am

What gets me is that every Taliban killed is a Senior Leader or Mid Level leader, are they like us “all chiefs and no Indians” I mean they have more O6s than we do, is that possible, and do they do powerpoiint constantly also?

If we kill 30 every time, is it a Senior Taliban leader? Does this mean that every Taliban when they know their name automatically gets promoted to mid/senior level leader?

Josh Foust mentioned the shere total of rear area guys a while back, what is the total strength percentage wise of O6s in the ISAF HQs? How many are there? Enough to field a company of Colonels or a BN?

I propose they load up and march right now to Kunar and retake the damn place-Senior ISAF leader against Senior Taliban Leader, since all the Taliban are Mid/Senior level leaders this should be a good fight.

Don Anderson October 14, 2010 at 10:41 am

Something Evil-This way cometh-Peace with Honor is the current line. We seem to be pushing the Taliban and “our strategic partner” Afghanistan (or is that Pakistan?) to negotiate.

We want out bad, Petraeus wants out worse and anything to make that happen goes now. 2011 is going to be a bigger drawdown “than conditions on the ground allow,” the slow back out will be route, and we can discuss this forever later.

These leaks about negotiations are intentional and now we know why.

That is until the ANA starts to collapse and the wave of political assassinations begins to hit Kabul. Going to be fun for the rest of us that stay in country after the soldiers have left.

Caleb Kavon October 14, 2010 at 10:50 am

A Better title for this post would be : “How we lost the War”

Caleb Kavon October 14, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Holbrooke is gone, Thank God…..he can get on the conference bandwagon now, oh yes, I forgot he is already on it.

Shah Mojadedi October 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm

On the number count of Pashtuns etc…? Who is sure? If we count in strictly Afghan terms fine, but cross the Durand line and we now have Sindhis, Punjabis, Kashmiris,Arabs, Germans, Turks etc etc.

Is this going to be a Pashtun majority conflict forever? Probably not. And probably a total insurgent count in both countries is not going to result in a majority Pashtun total.

Khurasan has several large groups, do not forget Khurasan, and its contemplated Emirate on the way to a new Caliphate. That is the goal, whether practical or not, that is the goal.

Steve Maghribi October 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Captain Monkey…Thanks…Kunar is crazy…just check the incidents they are up about 4000% this year in JBAD. Car bombings, rocket attacks, destruction of stores…I am just back from there last week and all the Afghans are frightened in the town. I heard a new BN got placed there so it is quieter this last few weeks. Though might be something brewing -quiet can be bad if the quiet means something is being planned..

All the Best…Stay Safe..

Capt. Monkey October 15, 2010 at 11:47 pm

If Kunar weren’t so crazy, I’d move there and start herding goats…

Kind of reminds me of a quote a college roommate had. “The beautiful ones are always crazy.”

Don Anderson October 15, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Well now this is clear as day…Mullah Barader has been released..and “returned to his Taliban Family” ??

What does this mean???

A. He was never captured, just pretended to be captured so that he had a good excuse to explain the situation to the US operatives, this was preapproved by the ISI and MOmar so no problem and part of the plan leading to negotiation. He now has the correct story so talks can proceed.

B. He was captured but by accident and just spoke to the US operatives about the weather and no one has a problem with it at all, it was an accident and the ISI apologized and told him to say nothing and after holding him and discussing nothing let him go.

C. This was the plan, pretend to capture him, send him back and use him to go to Kabul to meet Karzai, since they are both Popalzai

D. He is fine with the Taliban, they do not care that he talked to the US because this was prearranged by the ISI and everyone agrees.

E. He is not fine with the Taliban and will be the first killed when they get the chance.

F. He is fine with Good Quetta Taliban and not fine with the Bad Haqqani AQ TTM Taliban, who will kill him as a traitor if they get a chance. But he can represent some of them but not all. He now can negotiate for some and help destroy the Bad Taliban.

G. This has got to be joke, he was never released he is going to be returned to Kabul for trial as was declared.

H. This has got to be joke he was never captured just misinformation

None of the Above or All of the Above. ????

anan October 15, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Don Anderson, negotiations between Karzai and Baradar/Mullah Omar centric QST is probably good news. Problem is that Baradar/Mullah Omar do not control the majority of the combat power of the Taliban movement. The Baradar/Mullah Omar centric portions of the QST kill a minority of all ISAF, ANA and ANP.

If Mullah Omar/Baradar do split off from the bulk of the combat power of the Taliban [Iyas Kashmiri (Lashkar al Zil, Brigade 313, Brigade 095, other affiliated forces), LeT, TTP, TNSM, IJU/IMU, Sirajuddin, Lashkar e Jhanvi (So far I think Lashkar e Jhanvi has mostly stayed east of the Durand . . . I think Siraj is behind the killing of Afghan Shia and the shiite refugees from Kuram Agency . . . but I could be wrong)], the other Taliban will likely try to kill him. Unfortunately, Mullah Omar centric QST don’t fight as well as the other more ruthless Taliban. In my view, Mullah Omar probably isn’t as well funded as these other Taliban either.

Baradar/Mullah Omar and their followers would probably have to flee west of the Durand. Would the ANSF/ISAF be able to protect them?

Unless the real plan is to give Afghanistan back to the ISI and Pakistani Army and let ISI/Pakistani Army help Mullah Omar/Baradar core followers protect themselves. If so, then . . . what would that mean?

A year ago, a negotiated settlement with Mullah Omar/Baradar might have been a lot more effective. Now their forces have gotten creamed in Helmand, and are likely to suffer major losses in Kandahar. Increasingly other Taliban elements are influencing the rest of the country more than Mullah Omar.

Am I wrong to think that Mullah Omar understands that with other Taliban [who really don’t like him all that much and have larger regional agendas or international agendas than he does] winning in Nangarhar/Kunar/Nuristan, Laghman, Logar; while Mullah Omar centric QST is losing in Helmand and suffering in Kandahar . . . time isn’t on his side.

Do Mullah Omar/Baradar have to change the dynamics quickly or get supplanted by more radical Taliban that don’t agree with? What other option do they have?

sayke October 23, 2010 at 11:14 am

I: He was captured mostly by the US, who did not tell the ISI who they were helping to capture. Having captured him, the ISI told him “oh shit sorry – well, we have to keep you locked up for a bit but we’re letting you go back to work as soon as the Americans stop paying attention!” And that’s what happened…

Don Anderson October 16, 2010 at 9:42 am


A. The QT are not gettng creamed in Kandahar or Helmand. They are doing what smart insurgents do when you zone is infiltrated by troops for the 20th time. They are hanging back, watching the enemy, placing IEDs, harassing and assassinating if need be. They have been through this 20 times, we have launched 5 years of operations in Panjwai and Argendeb. The Russians did too. They are used to this. Go down there and see. The casualties are heavy and they are fighting back. No proof of them being defeated.
Same in Marjah.

B. For the inter group relations also no proof. We do not know if they coordinate completely partially or what. We do not know if the oath of loyalty to the Emirate means anything. Haqqani Senior hss been with Mullah Omar since 1996. Junior is more aggresive. LET/TTM.LEJ etc we do not know. Do not assume they are just begging to negotiate with anyone. We cannot easily discern what the ISI wants. Do they want to reject QT and help Haqq? Do they want to listen to the Americans and betray Haqq? Do they want to ignore it all and take Afghanistan like they did before? We do not know.

Who is the good Taliban and who is the Bad Taliban? You assume it is QT or maybe we are not sure. Or maybe we do not know. The only way to know is to go hang out with them but I do not want to be droned. Do you? We have been in this position many times before and always get fooled.

Maybe this time lets let the Afghans tell us before the Pakistanis do. Or let the Afghans decide. In any case we do not have the money to hang around waiting to find out.

The ANSF and Pak Army will need to discover this for us. We will be gone for the most part sooner or later.

sayke October 23, 2010 at 11:16 am

Everything seems consistant with “The ISI want to ignore all the BS and reconquer Afghanistan like they did before” – no?

Don Anderson October 16, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Anand, What do you make of this article…?

So if Mullah Omar is not going meet the red line standards, who will? I am very confused now. Who can they negotiate with now if Mullah Omar is not allowed? Do they want a coup in the Taliban?
What is the goal? What do the Pakistanis say? Does this have any future now at all?

anan October 23, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Don, I don’t know what is really happening with the peace talks. Which is scarier, that Mullah Omar is not part of the peace talks, or that Mullah Omar’s influence over the broader Taliban/Al Qaeda movement is shrinking?

“Everything seems consistant with “The ISI want to ignore all the BS and reconquer Afghanistan like they did before” – no?” That seems to the mentality of some parts of the Pakistani security establishment. In my view the only way to break them free from this mentality is for the international community to make a credible long term commitment to the ANSF. Then Pakistani and Gulf Arab calculations will have to adjust to a powerful long term ANSF and GIRoA.

Here is the deal . . . committing to a powerful ANSF over the long term means that the ANSF probably won’t have to fight over the long term since the regional influencer will likely reach out to the GIRoA . . . including the local Taliban factions.

Not committing to a powerful ANSF over the long term might doom Afghanistan and Pakistan to indefinite civil war in which hundreds of thousands or millions die.

To argue that the international community cannot pay $200 billion to fund the ANSF over 20 years or $10 billion/year is laughable. Japan alone gives the GIRoA $1 billion a year. India could be pressured into matching that contribution. China, Russia, South Korea, Iran could all be pressured into substantial contributions. The US can cut off aid to Israel to come up with $3 billion/year. Cutting off aid to Egypt too generates another $2.5 billion/year.

The global economy is likely to experience a rapid cyclical upturn courtesy of the business cycle. More than enough money will be there. The only question is “WILL.”

“The QT are not gettng creamed in Kandahar or Helmand.”

I would disagree with you regarding Helmand. How can the Taliban come back? 215th ANA Corps plus over 5 thousand AUP are developing their own intelligence networks and will fight them when they come back from Pakistan or other parts of Afghanistan. This winter the ANSF are in the villages whereas the Taliban are in hiding. These ANSF are not going anywhere.

Are Mullah Omar centric QST in Helmand good at large scale operations? Don’t see how they defeat 215th Corps . . . which is being trained and advised by the Marines, and will be vastly improved in quality one year from now. The only way the Taliban will be able to credibly threaten 215th ANA Corps and the provincial AUP is if QST brings in some Pakistanis and Eastern/Northern Afghan Pashtuns back with them. Which would transform the war in the south.

aron October 24, 2010 at 12:01 am

“The US can cut off aid to Israel to come up with $3 billion/year. Cutting off aid to Egypt too generates another $2.5 billion/year.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

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