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17 years on, is Afghanistan making progress toward peace?

For 17 years, the United States and its allies have remained in Afghanistan, fighting alongside Afghan forces, now against a strong Taliban insurgency. Nick Schifrin looks at the continuing bloodshed, as well as some aspects of progress, then talks with former State Department officials Robin Raphel and Barnett Rubin about the standstill and prospects for peace.

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  • William Brangham:

    Less than a month after the attacks of 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan to hunt al-Qaida and to remove the Taliban government that was sponsoring them.

    Seventeen years later, the U.S. and its allies remain there, fighting alongside Afghan forces against a strong Taliban insurgency.

    Our Nick Schifrin lived in Afghanistan for more than three years, and reports now on where things stand in America's longest war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Eastern Afghanistan this morning, the wounded arrived back to back, and kept coming for hours, stretcher after stretcher.

    They had been protesting in a group when a suicide bomber blew himself up, more than 150 casualties. Seventeen years after 9/11, Afghanistan has never been more dangerous for civilians.

    In the first six months of 2009, the war killed or wounded 2,492 civilians. In the first six months of 2013, the number was 3,921. And in the first six months of 2018, the number was 5,122.

    The current U.S. strategy is for 14,000 troops to work with lower-level Afghan units, who do the vast majority of the fighting. The idea is to have Afghan soldiers increase pressure on the Taliban, and hopefully compel them to negotiate, as President Trump said last August.

  • President Donald Trump:

    After an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    U.S. commanders admit the war is a stalemate and want the Taliban to talk, as outgoing Command General John Nicholson said last week.

  • Gen. John Nicholson:

    To the Taliban, I say, you don't need to keep killing your fellow Afghans. You don't need to keep killing your fellow Muslims. The time for peace is now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And peace is what the Afghans crave. At the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Taliban and government reached a three-day cease-fire. Residents and fighters embraced.

    But since then, the Taliban have launched a blitz of attacks to increase their influence and try to seize territory. in May 2016, the Taliban controlled 9 percent of the country and contested 25 percent. In May 2017, the Taliban controlled 13 percent and contested 30 percent.

    And in May 2018, the Taliban controlled 14 percent of the country, in red, contested 30 percent, in yellow. The government controlled only 56 percent, in green.

    Despite the ongoing violence, there's been some progress, including in health care. In 2005, the mortality rate for children under 5 was 110 deaths per 1,000. By 2010, that rate drops to 90 per 1000. And in 2016, it dropped again to 74 per 1,000.

    Progress in education has been even more dramatic. In 2002, one million children attended school, almost all boys. Today, more than 9.2 million are enrolled in school, including 3.5 million girls.

    But the U.N. says nearly half of children are out of school. And Afghanistan suffers from brain drain, especially among the young, like these refugees fleeing by foot to Turkey, after deciding Afghanistan, their homeland, was no longer safe.

    Let's take a broader look now at the Afghan war and prospects for peace with Barney Rubin. He served in the Obama administration's State Department and was one of the originators of their plan to start negotiations with the Taliban.

    And Ambassador Robin Raphel had a nearly-40-year career in the Foreign Service, including as assistant secretary of state for South Asia. She's now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and has been active in efforts to promote a political track in Afghanistan.

    Welcome to you both. Thank you very much.

  • Robin Raphel:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Raphel, let me start with you.

    We have — we do have some metrics of progress in Afghanistan. But are they isolated?

  • Robin Raphel:

    Well, I wouldn't say they're isolated.

    I think the most important metric of progress now is that Afghanistan's connected to the world. There's social media. There's Internet, news, and so on so forth.

    And, as many people indicate, there are a lot of improvements in social indicators, health, education, longevity, literacy, and so on and so forth. And you have a new generation of young people in Afghanistan that wants to stay and help develop the country in a more progressive way.

    But, of course, there's also insecurity, as we have seen today and previously. There's a war economy that's not sustainable. There's corruption. And, of course, much of the progress is confined to and the urban areas.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Barney Rubin, there is a more educated population in Afghanistan, a younger population. There is also more Afghan institutions today than there were many years ago, right?

  • Barnett Rubin:


    It's hard for people to understand just how destroyed and isolated Afghanistan was 17 years ago. The airport didn't even have a functioning conveyor belt. Now it has a president, parliament, courts, police, an army, a functioning airport, Internet, mobile phones, schools, educational system, health system.

    And there are vast things wrong with all of these things, but they exist, and it's become more of a normal country in that respect. But it's still very abnormal, in that thousands of people are being killed in horrible ways every year, and even every month.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That violence continues.

    Robin Raphel, the war is a stalemate, so commanders say. Do you believe that? Is it a stalemate?

  • Robin Raphel:

    I do. I do.

    I think the Taliban realize that they can't force the international forces out. And I think the international forces and our commanders realize we can't win in the traditional sense.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Barney Rubin, is part of the reason that the U.S. can't win, so to speak, not only because of actual military abilities on the ground, but also the capacity of the Afghan government and the capacity of the Afghan security forces?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Yes, because it's misleading in a way to talk about this as a war and to evaluate it in military terms.

    It is a political struggle. It's not between the Afghan army and the Taliban fighters and the U.S. military. It's between the U.S. government, the Afghan government, and the Taliban, which is a political organization.

    And the reasons for the weakness of our side, compared to the huge amount of resources that we have put into it, has to do with the political leadership, the lack of consensus, and problems of legitimacy of the government, and of lack of clarity of U.S. policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The clarity of U.S. policy has been a problem, Robin Raphel, for a long time.

    But is there clarity on one thing today? And that is willingness to talk with the Taliban and willingness to pursue a political solution.

  • Robin Raphel:

    I think today, now, there is a consensus to start talks, not negotiations, talks, with the Taliban.

    There's already been one round, as the U.S. government hasn't confirmed, but I think it's broadly accepted that that occurred. So I think there is a recognition that the political track has lagged way behind the military track, and that it was time to put some action behind what everybody is saying, which was there's no military solution to this war.

    So, yes, what is concerning is, how much — how far are we willing to go in these talks? How much flexibility will there be for negotiators and so on?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And, Barney Rubin, is the question not only about how far the U.S. is willing to go, but how willing the Taliban are, for example, to meet the Afghan government, something that's important if these talks are going to succeed, right?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Yes. It's — often, the question is posed in a kind of simple way, which is, do both sides, especially do the Taliban, want a negotiate settlement, or do they want to keep fighting?

    Actually, everyone wants a negotiated settlement that is advantageous to them. But the reason that the talks have not started is because they cannot agree about who are the relevant parties. The Taliban want to talk to the United States directly. The Afghan government wants to talk to the Taliban. And the Afghan government wants to talk to Pakistan, which is backing the Taliban, in their view.

    So we have got right now bunch of talks about how the negotiations are eventually to be organized. At this point, there's a stalemate, not just militarily, but there's a political stalemate over the question of whether talks are going to be led by the Afghan government, or if they will be in some other kind of format which is more acceptable to the Taliban.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Raphel, can the U.S. government put pressure on both the Taliban perhaps and the Afghan government, so that the two sides can actually meet?

  • Robin Raphel:

    I think, eventually, yes.

    But I believe that, in the first instance, there has to be a dialogue between the Taliban and the U.S. government that goes a bit further than it's gone this far. But, eventually, clearly, the Afghan — the Taliban have to talk to the Afghan government. And other players in the region are going to need to be brought in to whatever settlement is finally agreed.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    I assume that means including Pakistan?

  • Robin Raphel:

    That does mean including Pakistan.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And is Pakistan willing to do that?

  • Robin Raphel:

    I believe so. I mean, I think Pakistan wants stability in Afghanistan, contrary to the view that you hear, oh, they're just trying to sow chaos.

    No, they want stability. But the question is, on what terms?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Barney Rubin, if Pakistan wants to ability, and if Taliban, the U.S. and the Afghan government all want a political solution, does that mean there's momentum?

  • Barnett Rubin:

    Well, there's a kind of momentum now, because, for the first time in my memory, all the parties to the conflict are saying clearly that they want a negotiated settlement.

    But stability is a kind of vacuous term. Everyone wants peace if it means that they are in charge of it. So, right now, there's — there's a lack of clarity about whether the United States military forces will stay during — after the peace, or whether they're going as a precondition for it, over whether the Taliban will be negotiating the terms of being integrated into the current Afghan government system, or whether that system will be replaced with some new kind of system that will be negotiated among Afghans.

    It's extremely difficult to actually put all these things together and make them work. As I said, there's more determination and focus on the idea of a political settlement now than I have seen before. So let's not try to predict the future. Let's get to work.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Barney Rubin, Robin Raphel, thank you very much.

  • Robin Raphel:

    You're most welcome.

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