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As U.S. bombing shifts attention to Afghanistan, is the country any closer to stable?

April 14, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
A massive U.S. airstrike against the Islamic State has put American involvement in Afghanistan back in the spotlight. After almost 16 years, thousands of casualties and billions of dollars, how is the country faring and where does the U.S. effort stand? William Brangham reports and Judy Woodruff gets analysis of the ongoing conflict from Pamela Constable of The Washington Post.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan was brought into stark relief yesterday with a massive airstrike in the country’s east.

After nearly 16 years, thousands of casualties and billions of dollars, where does the American effort stand? And is the country any closer to being stabilized?

William Brangham begins our coverage.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The video shows a remote mountain valley suddenly consumed by a blast equal to 11 tons of TNT. The weapon, called a Massive Ordnance Air Burst, or MOAB, was used for the first time on the battlefield yesterday in this strike against Islamic State forces.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, Commander U.S. Forces, Afghanistan: This was the right weapon against this target.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In Kabul today, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Army General John Nicholson, called its use a tactical decision, not a strategic change in policy.

GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON: The enemy had created bunkers, tunnels and extensive mine fields, and this weapon was used to reduce those obstacles, so we can continue our offensive.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The target area was a district in Nangarhar province, where last weekend a U.S. special forces soldier was killed. It, along with neighboring Logar and Kunar provinces, are rife with Islamic State activity.

At the same time, the Taliban also continues to control and contest broad swathes of the Afghan countryside. The Taliban and ISIS have claimed responsibility for a series of recent attacks in Kabul that have shaken the capital.

Afghan officials say Thursday’s blast killed 36 Islamic State militants, but no civilians. ISIS denied anyone was killed. Afghan citizens appeared divided on using the bomb against ISIS, or Da’esh, as it’s also known.

MAN (through interpreter): We are very happy, and these kinds of bombs should be used in future as well, so ISIS is rooted out from here.

MOHAMMED AMAN, Kabul Resident (through interpreter): Da’esh is the enemy of Afghanistan. But there are children there, and they had casualties from this bombing. The whole world condemns this action.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The U.S. still has nearly 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, and General Nicholson has said the NATO force there needs a few thousand more troops to train and advise Afghan forces.

It’s those local forces who continue to take major casualties in the fight against the insurgents. That ongoing fight will surely be on the agenda when President Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, visits Kabul in the weeks ahead.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we turn to Pamela Constable. She’s the Washington Post bureau chief in Kabul and Islamabad.

We’re watching — catching her, that is, on one of her trips home.

Pam, we’re glad that you’re here to talk about the developments of the last few days, but also to take a look at the bigger picture in Afghanistan.

First of all, Kabul, capital city, how stable is it? What does it feel like?

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: Well, you know, it’s a contradiction.

It’s a very busy, active city. If you walked around it in the middle of the day, you would think you were in the middle of any other big, poor, but busy city. But there’s a great feeling of uncertainty and tension at this time.

There’s been a series of very bad suicide bombings, most recently the one at the military hospital last month, which was extremely shocking, I think, to Kabul residents, who had gotten used to a certain sense of stability and security. And I think a lot of that is gone now.

It’s also a city that really shows the difficulties Afghanistan’s having economically. The streets are full of beggars, full of drug addicts, full of people who are really struggling and looking for jobs, so it’s a bit of a sad picture.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you attribute it to?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Oh, that’s a big question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a big question.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Many things.

I think first and foremost has to be security. I mean, you have got a very persistent, very sophisticated Taliban insurgency, which is really doing lots and lots of attacks across the country, as well in the capital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And getting stronger.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, certainly holding its own, certainly able to carry out very frightening and persistent attacks, certainly not close to winning, but they’re certainly doing pretty well.

Then you have ISIS, which is known there as Da’esh, which is a whole other can of worms, as they say, a very different sort of enemy, more ruthless, less interested in winning hearts and minds, more foreign-based, more extreme compared to the Taliban, and, obviously, of greater concern to the neighbors.

Russia, for example, is very concerned about ISIS, and less so about the Taliban, which they appear to be reaching out to in many ways. So, that’s number one. And then following that is a long list. There’s corruption, there’s poverty, there is tribal and regional problems, and there’s the persistent divisions within the government itself.

So, people are quite frustrated, and I think very disillusioned by the lack of progress on a lot of fronts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do — many people place the blame there. I mean, do they blame the U.S. for not keeping more troops on the ground? Do they blame the Afghan government?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I mean, there’s a tendency to always blame the guy in charge. And, of course, that’s President Ghani.

And he deserves some of the blame. I think he probably took on more than he could chew. I think he aimed very, very high. I think he created unrealistic expectations of what was possible, given all the obstacles.

I think he’s made a good-faith effort. I think he’s done a lot, but he’s also been really bombarded by so many problems, corruption being a major one, administrative lack of capacity, and these terrible struggles that have gone on within the government, because, as you know, it wasn’t an elected government, per se. It was sort of a forged or forced power-sharing government.

And it’s never really gone that well. And I think that has really hampered them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, today, The Washington Post, one of your colleagues, has a piece today about the growing involvement — you mentioned it a moment ago — of Russia and Iran.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How is all that affecting the stability there?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: The interest of Iran is an old one.

Iran is a neighbor with lots of trade and traffic back and forth. It’s obviously Shiite. There are many, many, many Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan. So, it’s a neighbor, but it’s always been a neighbor that had lots of political interest in having influence of all kinds. That’s not new.

What’s relatively new is Russia, which obviously is a much more powerful country, not a neighbor, but close enough, that’s showing every sign of wanting to get involved, for the first time since the ’80s, when, obviously, they backed the government there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you now have, as William reported, the U.S. commander reportedly asking for — reportedly asking for thousands more U.S. troops to go in there. Is there a sense that that could make a difference?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I don’t know the answer to that.

I think it certainly would make an important psychological difference. You asked a minute ago about what Afghans want. They are very ambivalent. The Afghan administration, both military and civilian, very much want more American military support.

Particularly, what they want is air combat support, not necessarily ground troops. They say that, if they had better combat air support from NATO, from the U.S., they could handle things on the ground. But, anyway, they certainly want more help. The Afghan people are rather ambivalent.

There’s been — there’s a real sort of leftover bitterness and resentment and sort of complicated legacy of the Western involvement there militarily. So, the jury is still out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And after 16 years, it doesn’t get any simpler.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: No, it doesn’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pam Constable of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Very glad to be here.

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