As former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai prepared to leave power in his final year, he made a series of decisions to restrain International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) from participating in combat operations in Afghanistan. Further, he repeatedly tightened the constraints on United States Special Operations Forces (SOF). Due to a series of incidents in which an experienced and well-entrenched insurgent information-operations network crafted narratives and successfully pressured political powers into repeatedly taking public positions against U.S. combat power, ISAF capacity to wage effective campaigns to erode and degrade the rising tide of resurgent Taliban and Haqqani Network attacks was effectively mitigated. This has had a significant and deleterious effect upon the efforts of both ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to rollback insurgent gains in key areas of Afghanistan.

Almost immediately after taking office in September, Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, has diverged noticeably from his predecessor. Through several policy changes and a tangible shift in foreign policy, Ghani has signaled that he is charting a path that coincides with many of the strategic objectives of both the Western-dominated ISAF alliance and his own government. A few of the more important changes have elicited praise from both the Afghan public and allied force officials.

In November, Ghani reached out to Pakistan’s leadership, traveling to Islamabad after visiting two of Pakistan’s allies, China and Saudi Arabia:

Arriving at the military headquarters in Rawalpindi on Friday, Ghani was greeted by an army honor guard and received a security briefing, officials said. In the meeting, Ghani praised “Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism” and pledged to boost security cooperation, including training and border policing, according to a Pakistani military press release.

In Kabul, Ghani’s office issued a statement saying the countries had agreed to double bilateral trade, which now stands at $2.5 billion annually, within two years

“There are high expectations for the visit on both sides,” said Hasan Khan, a security expert in Islamabad. “The recent visits of senior Pakistani officials, including the army chief, have given Kabul a lot of reassurance.”

Afghan officials say that Ghani’s recent visits to Saudi Arabia and China – two major allies of Pakistan – marked an attempt to raise pressure on Islamabad to help restart Taliban peace talks. China has indicated a willingness for the first time to help mediate talks, partly, analysts believe, because it is worried that the withdrawal of most U.S. and international troops from Afghanistan at the end of the year will create a security vacuum that could be exploited by ethnic Uighur militants. (Auon Sahi and Shashank Bengali, The Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2014)

In an effort to stem the tide of rising insurgent violence, Ghani alleviated some of the pressure on ISAF military forces operating in Afghanistan by somewhat surprisingly lifting the ban on night raids conducted by ANSF SOF (some of which will include American partner forces). The lifting of the ban was specifically welcomed by Afghan generals commanding forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. The trust Ghani signaled to his SOF (especially) went a long way toward engendering goodwill from his military forces:

General Hameed welcomed a continuation of intelligence sharing, air transportation and close air support from American forces past the end of the year.

“We need strong backing of foreign forces during night raids, the helicopters and night vision goggles, GPS equipment, and better guidance,” he said. “Now we have noticed free movement of the Taliban, they are moving around at night and passing messages and recruiting people for fighting, and the only solution to stop their movement is night raids.”

A Western military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the matter, said that the Afghan forces would take the lead.

“Night operations are something the Afghans will be doing in a much more targeted way, the way they were trained to do but were held back under Karzai,” the official said. “We’re not going to be doing that, but there are going to be training missions with advisers along. They are not going to go onto the target with the Afghans, but they may go along in some cases and stay back.” (Rod Nordland and Taimoor Shah, The New York Times, November 23)

In December, Ghani welcomed Pakistani Army Chief General Raheel Sharif after the horror of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan. Ghani then followed up his promises to assist Pakistani leaders in their hunt for the group responsible and ordered ANSF operations in the mountainous Kunar Province that have since resulted in over 200 militants killed. The unprecedented military cooperation between Pakistani and Afghan forces has been a high-water mark in Ghani’s first few months as president:

Some 200 local and foreign militants have been killed in a military operation in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar where Pakistani officials believe fugitive commander of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Mullah Fazlullah and his loyalists maintain sanctuaries, Afghanistan’s top diplomat in Pakistan said on Saturday.

“This is a proof that we believe terrorists are terrorists. There is no difference between good terrorists or bad terrorists,” Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan, told journalists at the Afghan Consulate in Karachi on Saturday.

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Mullah Fazlullah claimed responsibility for the methodical killing of over 150 people, mostly students, at the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar on December 16. Pakistani military officials shared credible evidence with their Afghan counterparts that the handlers of the APS attackers were hiding in Afghanistan.

The Kunar operation followed visits to Kabul by senior Pakistani military officials, including army chief General Raheel Sharif, soon after the APS attack. (Rabia Ali, The Express Tribune, January 25)

Following a series of attacks, all of which occurred in volatile provinces where a resurgent Taliban threatens to permanently reverse the gains of over a decade of ISAF and ANSF efforts, Ghani stepped far outside of Karzai’s pattern and issued orders for replacement of provincial officials and security leaders responsible for maintaining stability in their assigned areas:

Ghani plans to replace officials in the northern provinces of Kunduz and Baghdis, Ghazni and Nangahar provinces in the east bordering Pakistan and Helmand in the south, presidential spokesman Nazifullah Salarzai said.

The provincial sweep will roll out over the next two to three months and will begin soon, he said.

“Senior government officials will be replaced,” Salarzai said. (Associated Press via The Guardian UK, December 1, 2014)

Earlier this month, Ghani proposed a revisiting of the previously established troop-withdrawal timeline, set for December of 2016. Making a case for a residual force that could continue to assist the ANSF as they equip and train to fight off a powerful insurgency, Ghani noted significant reluctance to remain tied to the deadline and underlined his malleable mindset with regard to the deadline. Further, he signaled support and an understanding with U.S. President Barack Obama, highlighting his willingness to work with U.S. officials to both achieve an improved Afghan security environment and accomplish the ISAF strategic objective of denying international terrorist elements an important haven:

“If both parties, or, in this case, multiple partners, have done their best to achieve the objectives and progress is very real, then there should be willingness to reexamine a deadline.” Asked by Logan whether President Obama knows this, Ghani replies, “President Obama knows me. We don’t need to tell each other.” (CBS News, January 2)

As Ghani continues to chart his own path in an effort to craft effective Afghan policy, he will have his work cut out for him. This past week, an attack at the Kabul International Airport resulted in the deaths of three American contractor personnel and the wounding of a fourth. The event reflects the effectiveness of the Taliban insurgent effort as the apparent “insider attack” serves to foment more fear between ISAF military and civilian personnel and their Afghan counterparts.

This past week, the Washington Post reported on a recent poll conducted by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research and Langer Research Associates of New York that showed an interesting and marked improvement in opinions of Afghans supporting an increased U.S. military role in Afghanistan:

In the poll, 46 percent said they would like to see a greater commitment by U.S. forces than currently in place. The United States and its NATO allies withdrew most forces last year and now have roughly 13,000 troops. The U.S. contingent is expected to fall to roughly 5,000 by the end of the year.

In recent weeks, senior Afghan officials have also indicated that they would like to see a greater U.S. presence after this year. Only 29 percent of Afghans said they preferred fewer or no U.S. forces to remain, according to the poll, which had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Two-thirds of Afghans favored a significant role by U.S. and international forces in training Afghan forces in the future, the poll found. (Sudarsan Raghavan, The Washington Post, January 29)

Ghani’s efforts to combat the insurgency, repair a damaged relationship with Pakistan, and his willingness to engage U.S. political and military leaders on an adjustable timeline for withdrawal are good indicators of a leader possessing a malleable mind and the courage to adjust to the mission. His first few months are impressive, if only in the context of juxtaposition with the man he replaced.

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