The War the U.S. Left Behind in Afghanistan
An Afghan soldier stands guard standing by a damaged bus at the site of a suicide attack by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
The U.S.-led coalition may have formally ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in December, but this week offered a stark reminder that the Afghan war against the Taliban is far from over.
The United Nations said on Wednesday that 3,699 Afghan civilians were killed in 2014 and another 6,849 were wounded — the highest figures since the U.N. began counting in 2009. The tally represents a 25 percent spike in civilian deaths and a 21 percent rise in injuries compared to 2013. Last year also set another grim record: The highest number of women (298) and children (714) killed in five years.
What is behind the rise in civilian deaths? Is the Afghan Taliban growing stronger? Can Afghan security forces handle the fight? What options does President Ashraf Ghani’s government have?
FRONTLINE spoke to three experts about the challenges Afghanistan faces in its fight against the Taliban.
Anand Gopal is the author of “No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes.” He has also worked as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan.
Sangar Rahimi is a journalist who worked for The New York Times in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013.
Marvin Weinbaum is a professor and scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. He served as a Pakistan and Afghanistan analyst for the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research from 1999 to 2003.
What’s behind the rise in civilian casualties over the last year?
Rahimi: In regards to the situation on the ground, it’s war. It intensified this year. A major part of the international security forces withdrew from Afghanistan. Now, it’s up to Afghan security forces to do the job and they’re not as competent and as fully equipped as international forces. It’s an ongoing and terrible war, and it’s been there for as long as I can remember, but last year was extremely bad.
As soon as the withdrawal started the Taliban got bolder and staged major attacks on district centers. They haven’t been able to gain anything significant and they weren’t able to overrun those district centers, but there was a lot of fighting last year.
Gopal: Part of it is because there’s more fighting between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban, and the Taliban are stronger than they were a few years ago in terms of the areas that they’re able to control. More generally, over the last 10 years you’ve seen the armed actors in the conflict has increased greatly. Around 2006 or 2007, you had U.S. military or NATO forces, Afghan security forces and the Taliban. Today, you have all sorts of militias such as the Afghan local police, various other informal militias. There’s a lot more people in the fight than there were before. For all those reasons, civilians are much more susceptible to being killed.
Weinbaum: The Afghan army has picked up the pace of its counterinsurgency actions. In the past, we always thought that air power was responsible for a lot of this, but actually in many respects it’s cleaner than coming in on the ground and trying to clear an area. The Afghans now have not had the kind of precision intelligence and support that the U.S. had.
I wouldn’t pin it on any particular change here. The fact is that the kind of warfare that goes on inevitably finds it very difficult to distinguish between combatants and civilians. The Taliban doesn’t take refuge in bunkers in desolate areas, but in inhabited areas …
As the figures demonstrate — and this you have to underscore — the Taliban are still responsible for the highest percentage by far of civilian casualties. They are now taking on the government’s forces. The civilians are in the way. I don’t think there’s a deliberate policy on the part of the Taliban to inflict damage on civilian populations, except where they may be singling out individuals or groups for their connection with the government.
What does this report say about the state of the Taliban? Critics of the U.S. drawdown said the Taliban would just lie in wait until Western troops left. Is there any indication that’s the case? Are there already signs of what’s to come?
Gopal: In terms of how strong they are generally — they’re rooted in the deep south, along the border in the east and parts of the north, in the countryside. That hasn’t changed tremendously in the last few years. What that means though is they still don’t have much of a base in urban areas. They’re not going to march to Kabul and overthrow the government or even take over provincial capitals. I don’t think they have the manpower or firepower to do that. What you have essentially is an entrenched conflict where the Taliban are in the countryside and the Afghan government and its forces are concentrated in the cities and major urban centers.
[The Taliban] has splintered a lot in the last three or four years. There are a number of reasons for that. [The Taliban’s leader,] Mullah Omar’s been kind of M.I.A. since 2001, but more substantively there were a series of arrests conducted by Pakistan to eliminate certain key Taliban leaders from the scene. These are guys who are very important in lending cohesion to the Taliban. Also the U.S. military policy of targeting mid-level commanders. What that’s ended up doing is eliminating many, many field commanders, but by doing so severing the links between the groups on the ground and leadership.
You kill a field commander, and then his brother takes over and you kill him. Then you have some completely new person who takes over who doesn’t really have the same links to community or to the leadership like the previous guy did. And so, the U.S. targeting policy has contributed to the fragmentation and radicalization of the Taliban.
It’s true that they were waiting for the troops to leave. The counter argument to that of course is that by keeping troops you’re just kicking the can down the road. It’s not like 10 years of military presence has succeeded in defeating the insurgency or bringing stability to Afghanistan. It’s hard to see how another four or five years would do that. [The Taliban] feels like they can outlast the Afghan government, which is being supported completely by the West, and then perhaps take power like they had in the 1990s. There are some who recognize that they’ll never take power like the 1990s and are looking for a negotiated settlement, but those are in the minority.
Rahimi: I wouldn’t say the Taliban are stronger now. They have a lot of motive to intensify the attacks. They feel like it’s now or never. They know that American forces are not going to attack them anymore. And the Afghan forces don’t have an air force. They are not strong enough. They are not equipped enough. So they feel, “Let’s do it now. This is the time.”
But again, they haven’t gained anything. This report was about civilian casualties but on the military side casualties were way, way higher than the previous years. This year they took the fight to the Taliban, whereas before it was international forces that did the majority of the fighting.
Every year, the traditional war season used to start in the spring, around March- April, and it would go to November or December. But this year it was going on all the year round, even in the cold winter season they kept fighting. The good news is that Pakistan is apparently trying to push the Taliban to sit at the negotiating table with the Afghan government. If that is true, and it leads to a breakthrough between the Afghan government and the insurgent Taliban, that’ll be good news. But there’s always a big “if” about the sincerity of the Pakistani establishment cooperating with the Afghan government. If not, I’m sure 2015 will be as bad as 2014 or even worse …
Weinbaum: The Taliban had successes on two fronts. In Helmand and perhaps Kandahar, and in the east in Kunar and Nangarhar, they have been able to expand their presence …
The other success they’ve had — which is more symbolic and psychological — is hitting targets in the major cities: Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat. For this you don’t need a substantial number of forces. They have been able, and they’re willing now to take on the government in larger numbers. They still operate as a guerilla force, but they’re amassing larger groups. What you can do in the cities you can do with two or three people. You can create the kind of attention that’s perhaps worth even more, because you’re undermining the confidence that people have in the authorities to keep them safe.
[The U.S.] came down from about a 100,000 troops to about 11,000. The question always was as we came down would the Afghans step up? And to some extent they have. There are many who thought that at this point things would collapse, perhaps not in Kabul, but there would be greater gains on the Taliban’s part. That’s not happened. On the other hand, there hasn’t been any perceptible rolling back of the Taliban’s grasp on certain parts of the country.
Can Afghan security forces hold up in this fight or should we be concerned about what happened in Iraq happening again?
Rahimi: Afghan security forces are weak in the sense that they’re not well-equipped. They are losing a lot of men. They can’t protect their own forces. A lot of soldiers are dying due to the lack of medevac. When they get injured they remain in the back of a car for 24 to 72 hours.
But Afghan security forces are strong. They have the experience of the past 10 to 12 years of fighting. Yeah, they are not as capable as international forces, but the Taliban are not a well-organized force either.
Gopal: The Afghan security forces have much greater person power compared to the Taliban. They just have many more fighters. If you add up the Afghan national police, the Afghan army, various militias, you’re talking between 300,000 to 400,000 people that are fighting in some way on behalf of the government. We don’t have exact numbers for the Taliban, but they’re around 30,000 to 40,000. They’re greatly outnumbered, and also greatly out-resourced. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars that go into propping up the Afghan army and police.
As long as the U.S. and other Western countries keep funding their proxies in Afghanistan, the government will be able to hold on to the cities and the major populated areas. They won’t be able to defeat the Taliban, but they won’t be defeated by the Taliban. A war of attrition is basically what we’re seeing — more and more civilians getting killed but the line of control doesn’t change.
Weinbaum: Cohesion in the Afghan security forces seems okay. Where they’re hurting is the desertions that have been taking place. It’s not sustainable. Right now, they’re holding together. But if we’re not there, I wouldn’t bet on that continuing. We have to continue to pay their salaries. I haven’t heard anything that suggests that the army is coming apart from within. …
What are some of the biggest hurdles facing the government of President Ashraf Ghani? What are the government’s options for dealing with the Taliban?
Gopal: The first is that he’s not really the president of a sovereign country, because his country depends utterly on foreign aid to survive. Afghanistan doesn’t have the ability to collect taxes so most of its revenue comes from foreign aid. Security-wise, Afghanistan very much depends on its partnership with the West. The ability of the president of that country to act in the interest of Afghanistan is constrained for these reasons.
Also because the U.S. empowered warlords, strongmen and power brokers around the countryside who essentially compete with the president for power … the Afghan state barely exists outside of cities. It’s not really a state in the sense we think of one where one group has a monopoly on the means of violence.
In the short term, one option is to push for a negotiated settlement. But there’s no serious effort to come to the negotiating table by any of the sides. A second approach, in the long term, would be to find a way to become economically self-sustaining. Instead of giving contracts to the Western countries or Chinese for developing mining for instance, nationalize it and have the state develop the expertise to do this so it could actually build a revenue base and wean itself off from Western support.
A third option, which is probably unfortunately the most realistic option and the one that looks the best for a lot of Afghan officials, is to do nothing except keep doing what they’ve been doing.
Rahimi: The big hurdle for Ashraf Ghani is internal politics. Have you ever seen a government run by two people in the world? There’s no unified policy regarding decision making.
The first challenge for Ghani would be trying to convince Abdullah Abdullah [who holds the title of chief executive in the Afghan government] in every strategy decision he’s trying to make. It would extend the timeframe of every decision they made, since they were both bitter political rivals.
All Afghans know that the international community is leaving Afghanistan. There won’t be as much attention as there was in the past 13 years. The government is in a terrible financial situation right now, and the unemployment rate is booming. Narcotics trade, corruption — these are all problems that Ashraf Ghani needs to tackle in the coming months and years in office.
Weinbaum: [Ghani’s] got his domestic issues, where he’s not making very much progress in terms of reform. He still has the confidence of the people. There’s no Plan B for Afghanistan. If this government fails, then Afghanistan fails. Then you’re not only dealing with a Taliban resurgence, but with a civil war conceivably.
Ghani would love to be able to start a peace process, and there’s been a lot of talk of that in the last few days. I have no faith in it going anywhere. The easy part is getting the Taliban to the table. The difficult part is finding something on which they can agree, because the visions between the Afghan government, the international community and the Taliban are very different …
The Taliban isn’t going to negotiate until one of two things happen: Either they’re being beaten on the battlefield and the commanders simply say, “We have no future here. Time is not on our side,” or if Ghani succeeds in holding on for two, three, four years down the road. Then you get maybe not the hardcore Taliban, but individual commanders and troops throwing in the towel and saying, “Time is not on our side. This government is succeeding.”
The U.S.-led coalition has formally ended its combat mission in Afghanistan, and there’s a sense, at least in some American media, that the longest war the U.S. fought is over. What are we missing? What should we be paying attention to?
Rahimi: It’s my personal opinion that international community should focus on education in Afghanistan. You wouldn’t even imagine the thirst among Afghans for education. A few days ago there was a small demonstration. People came from Zabul, a small impoverished province, to the capital. They weren’t there to ask for food or for employment or for any social services. They were there to ask the government for schools and universities. It was so noble of them. It was so moving and emotional. But, of course, you can’t have good schools unless you have good security in place.
I honestly don’t think the Taliban are able to overrun the country. But what threatens the country is the political instability in the capital, Kabul.
Weinbaum: I think we have to watch the mood of the Afghan people themselves. That’s going to be critical. We don’t have the eyes and ears that we once had in the country. Because a lot of them are on the fence — not that they’re yearning to see the Taliban to come back, but that the government still has a lot of work to do to gain the confidence that it needs.
Gopal: We’re missing that the war is not over. Civilian casualties are at an all-time high. People are dying — and not only are people dying in some abstract way that had nothing to do with the United States — they’re dying in a war that the U.S. is still intimately involved with. It’s just involved in a different way than it was six, seven years ago…
Hundreds of millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to prop up the Afghan state and continue this war. We need to have a conversation about whether there’s an end in sight to this conflict or if through the aid programs and lack of pushing for a negotiated settlement we’re contributing to this sort of endless war of attrition in which civilians keep dying.