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Without a path to peace, Afghan forces constantly fighting to root out Taliban

In Afghanistan, commando military units are kept busy chasing out the Taliban, then moving on to the next, inevitable advance elsewhere. But after special forces retake an area, ill-equipped regular forces that replace them struggle to hold on -- the same problem American forces faced there for years. Can Afghans find any peace? Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Afghanistan's government is trying to reach a peace deal the U.S. was unable to deliver earlier this month, when President Trump canceled talks with the Taliban. But that peace may only be achieved through more fighting.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson traveled to Ghazni province, an area caught up in the fighting, and talked to leaders in both the Afghan government and the Taliban about the way forward.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The only safe way to travel to Afghanistan's Ghazni province is by air. Helicopters carried us there with top government officials into areas until recently controlled by the Taliban.

    Not long ago, this would have been a deadly place to land, with these fields full of Taliban fighters. Even today, it's a risky trip for Afghanistan's national security adviser, Dr. Hamdullah Mohib.

    He's here trying to reassure people that government forces are in control.

  • Dr. Hamdullah Mohib:

    They're rebuilding their lives. Their main concern is, what if this is only temporary? What if we believe and are not able to maintain what happens to them?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That's because, all across Afghanistan, the Taliban are launching attacks on police and government forces, and even popping up in towns and cities to audaciously grab ground momentarily.

    The Afghan government is keen to show off areas like this that they have just recently retaken using the elite special forces. This area of Ghazni — I'm standing now in the middle of an old police headquarters — was held by the Taliban for over five years.

    The biggest challenge will be to make sure that the government forces can hold their ground here, and they don't have to keep sending in the special forces time and time again.

    And that threat is never far away. These soldiers told us Taliban fighters are less than three miles from this spot, and surely watched us arriving.

    For some, not even the army can help. Siraj Khan is the governor of a neighboring province that fell to the Taliban 12 years ago. Any hope he had of a military rescue has long faded.

    "They cannot remove them," he told us. "The Taliban are very strong there."

    Afghan commando units are kept busy chasing out the enemy. But then they have to move on to the next inevitable Taliban advance elsewhere. The regular forces who replace them are weak and ill-equipped, and they struggle to hold on. It's the same problem American forces faced here for years.

    Now, more than nine months of intensive negotiations between the United States and the Taliban have fallen apart, on the cusp of a deal for withdrawing American troops. That deal would have brought American soldiers home, but left the Afghan government to largely fend for itself, with just promises from the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul.

    The problem with that, the Taliban refuses to recognize the Afghan government, calling it an American puppet. Afghanistan's minister of defense, Asadullah Khalid, still believes his forces can get the Taliban to negotiate with the Kabul government by hitting it even harder with military offensives.

  • Asadullah Khalid:

    In some cases, we have doubled our operation. Even in some cases, we made it triple to put more pressure on Taliban to push them to come to the table.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Which negotiating table is that?

  • Asadullah Khalid:

    Afghan government.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    And so the country's special forces keep raiding Taliban strongholds. In the capital of Kabul, we joined them on a late-night search on the outskirts of town.

    Several dozen soldiers stormed the neighborhood in the moonlight, on the hunt for a Taliban commander.

    Forces are heading into the house now. With so many major attacks happening in Kabul that kill civilians, raids like this are all the more essential.

    This time, all they found was the man's father at home. He was questioned and let go.

    With few options on the table, other than intensified fighting, casualty rates in this war are staggering. President Ghani announced in January that 45,000 Afghan national defense and security forces, called the ANDSF, have been killed since he took office in 2014. That's around 1,000 dead every month.

  • Tamim Asey:

    It is definitely not sustainable, whether it's the civilian casualties, whether it's the ANDSF casualties, or whether it's the Taliban casualties.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For former Deputy Defense Minister Tamim Asey, the numbers haunted him during his time in office.

  • Tamim Asey:

    I would go home and sleep well for four or three hours on a day that I would count that, in every hour, I don't lose two or three people. So that would be my best day, because, in every hour, on average, we used to lose one or two ANDSF.

    And 24 hours is, we are talking about 24 people, or 40 people, or 48 people.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    If America wants to withdraw its troops from this country without leaving it in total chaos, then the Trump administration will also have to deal with Afghanistan's neighbors.

    Pakistan has long given safe haven and support to the Taliban across the border. And, according to Asey, Iran is increasingly helping the group too.

  • Tamim Asey:

    Sometimes, the Iranians have been very blunt: If they pressure us, we pressure you here.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They being the Americans?

  • Tamim Asey:

    Yes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Any deal to end this war is a multidimensional mine field?

  • Tamim Asey:

    So when the balance of the relationship between U.S. and Russia, U.S. and Iran, U.S. and some other country, or even Pakistan, changes, unfortunately and sadly, we see the consequences here in Afghanistan.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Even if peace in Afghanistan can be achieved, it leaves the question of what to do with the thousands of Taliban fighters. If they remain armed, peace would be fragile, yet the likelihood of them voluntarily surrendering their weapons is very low.

  • Dr. Hamdullah Mohib:

    We would have to integrate their rank and file as well. And we are looking — we are looking at these plans that we are making in these districts to utilize their fighters to secure some of these areas, if we were able to.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Back in Kabul, we sat down with national security adviser, Dr. Mohib, in his office at the presidential palace. He says he is planning for all scenarios.

  • Dr. Hamdullah Mohib:

    Now, we have to be very careful. We cannot integrate them into the ANDSF right away, because we would be creating a Trojan horse. We have to be careful at what percentage we are able to do this and maintain the security forces' integrity.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Flying up to remote Badakhshan province, we headed out to meet with this group of dozens of Taliban fighters. They had just surrendered to government forces as the front line shifted.

    Unbowed, their commander was confident: The Americans will soon be gone.

    Do you think that they will leave soon? Do you think that you're winning this fight?

  • Sultan Mohammed  (through translator):

    Our representative in Qatar, said whether they like it or not, the Americans will be forced to leave.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Do you still view America as an enemy?

  • Sultan Mohammed (through translator):

    All the foreigners should leave Afghanistan, whether they are from America, Canada or anywhere else.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    These fighters are out of the war, at least for now. But across the country, combat rages. More civilians have been killed by the Afghan government and U.S. forces in the first half of this year than by the Taliban.

    And the Taliban continue to kill and maim civilians by the dozens in suicide attacks in the capital, Kabul, and elsewhere, people like Shafiqullah, a tailor, injured by an explosion while on his way home from work.

    These people their homes on the front line of this intractable war. With presidential elections coming up, the violence, already horrific, is intensifying.

  • Dr. Hamdullah Mohib:

    You know, Taliban are not all looking to make peace. There are certain elements within that may want to make peace. But the rest of them are looking to continue fight under other banners.

    They may not be under Taliban, but perhaps under ISIS, or rename and rebrand themselves in other ways and continue.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For most wars to end, communities often have to choose peace over justice.

    Until there is an end to this conflict, Afghanistan's people will get neither.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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