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Deadly Taliban attack on Afghan base underscores insecurity

April 24, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
A surprise visit to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary James Mattis underscores growing U.S. concerns. Just three days before, Taliban fighters killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers, reminding the world that it remains a force to be reckoned with. William Brangham talks to former Defense Department official David Sedney.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: More than a decade- and-a-half into the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the country remains wracked by instability.

On Friday, the Taliban reminded the world that it remains a force to be reckoned with. Two of the top national security officials in the Trump administration have just visited the country.

William Brangham reports.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The defense secretary’s surprise visit to Kabul underscored growing U.S. concerns about Afghanistan.

Secretary Mattis made that clear after meeting with President Ashraf Ghani and other leaders.

JAMES MATTIS, U.S. Secretary of Defense: 2017 is going to be another tough year for the valiant Afghan Security Forces and the international troops who have stood and will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan against terrorism.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Just three days before, Taliban fighters, disguised as government troops, killed at least 140 Afghan soldiers.

Officials believe the final death toll will be higher, making this the single deadliest attack on an Afghan base in years. It happened at a compound in northern Balkh province.

Also today, at least four security guards were killed when a suicide bomber hit a U.S.-operated base in the east of the country, all this amid reports that Russia is funneling weapons to the Taliban, something the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan essentially confirmed.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, Commander U.S. Forces – Afghanistan: We had the overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russian that really occurred during late last year beginning through this process they have been undertaking.

QUESTION: So, to be clear, you are not refuting that they are sending weapons?

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON: Oh, no, I am not refuting that.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Russia has denied aiding the insurgents. But it lends urgency to the U.S. decision whether to deploy more American troops in a war that’s now in its 16th year.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, we turn to David Sedney, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia during the Obama administration. He’s now acting president of the American University of Afghanistan, and joins us via Skype from Kabul.

David Sedney, thank you very much for being here.

Can we — let’s talk first about this attack on Friday. The Afghan forces have already lost thousands of soldiers to the Taliban over the last few years. How significant is Friday’s attack?

DAVID SEDNEY, Former Defense Department Official: I would have to say that this is a very significant attack.

It is probably the largest attack the Taliban have ever carried out on Afghan forces. It was done with a kind of sophistication and planning that I think even surprised many people here. And it shows the Taliban have a reach and a capability that is something that people just didn’t expect.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As you say, this attack shows, I don’t know if you want to call it the audacity, but the audacity of the Taliban.

But it is also, is it not, something of an indictment of the Afghan forces to have allowed the infiltrators who helped perpetuate this attack and to allow themselves to be caught off-guard like this?

DAVID SEDNEY: Well, I think certainly shows a failure of intelligence.

It shows that there needs to be improved leadership on the Afghan forces. But I have to say that the Afghan forces have fought bravely and well in repeated engagements with the Taliban over the last several years, after, to be frank, the Obama administration made a too hasty and poorly planned withdrawal, leaving the Afghan forces without the kind of support and the kind of leadership that they needed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Obviously, we need as robust an Afghan fighting force as we can to counter the Taliban.

Do you think this kind of an attack will hurt recruitment going forward?

DAVID SEDNEY: I don’t think it will hurt recruitment. In fact, the experience that I have seen here is, after attack, recruitment tends to go up.

But the real issue here is not recruitment. The real issue here is leadership, leadership and mentoring. The Afghan forces have a real large number of very capable junior and middle-level officers that the United States and our allies have played a major role in training.

But the upper levels of leadership is an area where we have not given the kind of sustained attention over the last decade or so. And that’s where the real problems lie. And that’s why, as you mentioned earlier, the minister of defense, the chief of staff and some other senior generals have been replaced.

And I would have to say, many people here believe it’s well past time that that kind of change in leadership happened.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: More broadly, the top U.S. commander there, General John Nicholson, said that the security situation in Afghanistan is at a stalemate.

And I wonder, do you agree with that assessment?

DAVID SEDNEY: Yes, I do.

You have a situation where the Afghan security forces are able to prevail in direct engagements with the Taliban, but because of continuing support from Pakistan, because of the Taliban’s ability to strike anywhere anytime, and because of weakness in enablers, particularly air and intelligence, the Afghans forces haven’t been able to gain an advantage on the battleground.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We mentioned also at the returning that the Russians have been supporting the Taliban increasingly.

Can you help us understand, why do the Russians want to support them?

DAVID SEDNEY: The Russians see Afghanistan as an area, I believe, where they can try and take advantage of the United States, try and drive a wedge between us and some of our allies, and also an area where they have the ability to strengthen their long-term strategic position.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Lastly, General Nicholson also said, in order to break this stalemate, billions of dollars and thousands more U.S. troops might be needed.

Do you think that will do it? If that is granted, if the money comes, if the troops come, will that fix this?

DAVID SEDNEY: I think that those are important components, but there are two other equally or I would actually say more important components.

The first is improved Afghan leadership, both at the ministry level and at the corps level in the military. There really needs to be a replacement of many of older generals that should have been retired many years ago, and younger leaders need to be moved up.

But finally and most importantly is the role of Pakistan. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban is what makes them as capable as they are, the ability to have arms, armed men, explosives sent across the border, with no restrictions at all from Pakistan, that’s what’s enabled the Taliban to continue to fight the way they have.

And until that safe haven in Pakistan is addressed one way or another, this conflict is going to continue.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, David Sedney, acting president of the American University of Afghanistan, thank you very much.

DAVID SEDNEY: Thank you, William.

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