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Can Afghan forces hold their own? – Part 2

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    And joining me now is NPR's Sean Carberry. He was the news organization's chief Kabul correspondent before it closed down its permanent presence in Afghanistan just a few weeks ago.

    And welcome to you.

    And I want to start where that peace ended with the troops that will remain even after this is officially declared over. What will they be doing?


    Well, they will have two primary missions. One is counterterrorism operations, so going after any remnants of al-Qaida or affiliated groups that are still in Afghanistan.

    The second is what the military calls a train, advise and assist mission, which is essentially to continue mentoring and helping the Afghan forces, which is really what has been going on for the better part of the last year. U.S. forces transitioned from running combat operations to this training advisement largely over the course of the year. So there is not a huge dramatic shift that is happening right now.


    Yes. That is the obvious question is, what does it mean in practical terms that — this end-of-the-war ceremony?

    You're saying not that much.


    Right. It really is more ceremonial than it is substantive at this point, because U.S. forces have been conducting very few combat operations over the past year.

    They have drawn down. Afghan forces are leading operations. U.S. forces are continuing to support in some cases. They provide air support, sometimes some on-the-ground support. Special forces do some joint operations. And most of that will continue next year with just a smaller number of forces. So there will be U.S. forces who will still be seeing combat. There will still be U.S. air support provided, intelligence, other support to the Afghan forces.


    Well, so, when we speak of the resurgence of the Taliban, we see their ability to have deadly attacks, at least in small force. How much are they — how strong are they? How much are they able to change things in larger ways?


    Well, it's always hard to assess them as a force, because they do operate in cells. They're scattered around the country.

    They did carry out a number of large-scale attacks over the course of the summer. They did challenge Afghan forces in a number of places. They carried out a lot of attacks that did take over terrain for a while and the Afghan army had to come in and push them back out. So they are clearly a very substantial force and able to put Afghan forces on their heels in parts of the country.

    And we saw a huge uptick in violence the last couple months I was there, in November, about 12 different suicide attacks in Kabul alone, the most violent month certainly in the time that I was there, and a lot of people said one of the most violent months they had seen. So the Taliban are still very strong, active and want to push and challenge this new government that's in place.


    Well, the new government, before we get there, the Afghan security forces, their ability to counteract the Taliban at this point?


    U.S. forces generally say Afghan forces can hold their own. But in the face of an ongoing insurgency, holding their own is not a fantastic grade.

    And while they can fight well, they still have huge problems with logistics, with maintaining their equipment, with intelligence. The air force is years away from being a powerful force that can replace the airpower that the U.S. and other countries provided. So they can fight on the ground, but they're not a self-sustaining force by any stretch of the imagination.


    All right, so the new government Ashraf Ghani still having some trouble even getting organized, still facing a bad economy, still facing the Taliban threat.


    Yes. It's three months since he was inaugurated and there's still no new cabinet. And part of this is a function of this dynamic of this national unity government, which was the compromise to end the election standoff that went for months over the course of the summer.

    Secretary of State John Kerry had to fly in multiple times to broker a resolution to the disputed outcome. As a result, you have Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up, as the CEO of the government. So they have to agree on a new cabinet. They have to agree on a lot of decisions that are being made.

    And they each have their own circles of people around them that they have to deal with. So it's made a much more complicated government situation. And they have not been able to accomplish very much in the first three months.


    Well, that — what have been the priorities of Ghani and the government at this point? What kind of initiatives are they able to take?


    Well, so far, Ghani has tried to put a focus on cleaning up the government. It was a notoriously corrupt government and country.

    He's tried to focus on going after some of the serious cases. The Kabul Bank case where there was nearly a billion dollars siphoned out of the bank by its shareholders several years ago, he reopened that case, has tried to prosecute these people to send a signal that this government is going to be clean, is going to go after corruption.

    So he's taken some steps in those regard, but on any large-scale effort, there really hasn't been anything major that has been accomplished by this administration yet.


    Let me ask you, finally and briefly, from your time there — and it was about almost three years that you were there — how much has life changed for citizens?


    It depends where you are in the country. For some, it has changed. Some places are more secure. They're seeing a little bit more economic development. Some places got worse over the time that I was there.

    So, still, people are very concerned about security. They're very concerned about the economy. And, by and large, there's not a huge net positive change today from when I first got there. So the country still has a lot of challenges and a long way to go before it's going to be stable, secure and sovereign.


    All right, Sean Carberry, thanks so much.


    You're welcome, Jeff.

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