Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: Last week (President Barack Obama) made a surprise holiday visit to Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan. This week, (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) is in Afghanistan. And next week, we can expect a year’s end assessment of how the battle is going against the seemingly resurgent Taliban.
Earlier this week I had a chat with a Turkmen journalist who covered the rise, rule and fall of the Taliban. Before we get to our other guests, here is an excerpt from that conversation.
Muhammad Tahir, Radio Free Europe, Turkmen News Division, Washington, D.C.: At the time of the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan I was in Pakistan. But, I quickly moved to Afghanistan to see how things were developing. I went to the Kunduz province in the northern Afghanistan where bunches of Taliban militia were fighting against the coalition forces and even some local forces. Since then we have an increasingly deteriorating situation in southern Afghanistan and recently we see some major shifts in terms of secret issues happening in northern Afghanistan. At one point we thought the Taliban had disappeared, but they are again re-emerging because of many reasons.
I will try to explain this in a micro study that I have done recently on the ground in northern Afghanistan. There are not enough security forces like government security forces in the region. NATO forces in many regions are not effective. In the case of this little study that I have done in northern Afghanistan, German troops are there as a representative of NATO. They are not effective so there is a security gap. The Taliban is simply filling the security gap because they are in trouble in the Waziristan region of Pakistan and they are in trouble in southern Afghanistan. So they found a safe haven in northern Afghanistan where there is not enough security forces.
Scott: Are they welcome in northern Afghanistan?
Tahir: They are not welcome, but government forces are not in a position to stop them and people do not have resources to say it is up to them. Also, there is an increasing number of foreign militants in that part of the region. There have been foreign militants in Afghanistan during the time of Taliban rule in the country. And since then they moved to other places like Waziristan and Pakistan, but because of security concerns in that region they are moving together with the Taliban to other parts of the country in Afghanistan and especially to the north.
Scott: Is this a war that can be won with the Taliban in your opinion?
Tahir: I think it is possible, but we should increase the security situation in Afghanistan by empowering United States forces, putting more troops in those regions or by finding a local solution for the security problem. In one case I was able to conduct a study in a little village close to the border with Pakistan. They established their own local militia. So while other districts are going under the Taliban, this little village stood up against the Taliban, protecting their village. Their ability to stop the Taliban in their village probably prevented the Taliban from advancing in other nearby provinces and districts.
In this village they also opened a school. Girls are going to school and studying. People are finding their own way to address their demands. Economic development is one problem, but in the case of this little village, with this security arrangement, they are doing fine with their economy. And lack of economic development is a major part of what powers the Taliban in the region because the Taliban offers people security.
Scott: Are the cautious declarations of progress based in fact? Has the addition of 30,000 American troops this past year made a difference? Can the Taliban be dislodged yet a second time?
Bryan Bender, Department of Defense and Homeland Security correspondent, The Boston Globe, Washington, D.C.: Secretary Gates, President Obama and other senior officials are convinced that the additional U.S. troops that were dispatched last year have made some difference. These officials say there is more security in areas than perhaps a year or two ago.
But, having said that, there is also an understanding at high levels, and among NATO leaders, that eventually the United States is going to have to sort of cut its losses. I don’t think anyone believes that Afghanistan is going to be a completely stable society with no terrorists, no al-Qaida, no Taliban and that the U.S. and the allied forces can just leave.
I talked to someone the other day, a fairly senior person in the U.S. government, who said he thinks that for the next six to eight months the U.S. will continue on the trajectory that it is on. Come next summer we will start to draw down little by little the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The U.S won’t leave entirely, but sort of shift the mission into one that is much less counter-insurgency, and much less of a longer term effort to rebuild Afghanistan. It will be more focused on what people would call counter-terrorism, the “Joe Biden point of view.” (Vice President) Joe Biden always said that the mission should be focused on killing terrorists, stopping them from attacking the U.S. I think what we’re seeing now are efforts to try to get to a point where the U.S. can confidently move to that sort of more focused mission.
Scott: Daniella, how do these statements jibe with what IWPR is learning? I know you have a presence on the ground as well.
Daniella Peled, editor, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, London: In regards to the NATO announcement that they’re going to end combat mission operations by 2014, the reports we’re getting from the ground is that there is consensus among military experts and political leaders at least behind the scenes. The consensus is that there is no way the Afghan security establishment can keep stability on its own.
Recently, the coalition strategy is focused on building the Afghan security forces, but the Afghan national army is already under-recruited. They need a couple hundred thousand more people. They have a lack of training, equipment and it is very corrupt. It certainly doesn’t have public confidence and the Afghan police forces are even more corrupt. So how in four years are we supposed to cover all this ground? The recent report by the International Crisis Group reiterated that. They said without international forces, the regime will collapse, the neighbors will move in to start a war and the future looks pretty grim.
Scott: Let’s move to Matthieu Aikins. Mathheiu, the last time we tried to talk to you, your transmission was blocked by a road block in Afghanistan. I also know that you have been in some of those villages disguised as an Afghan for your reporting. Can you tell us a little bit about that and what your impressions are?
Matthieu Aikins, freelance journalist, New York City: Sure. I was back in Afghanistan for about four months this summer and part of the fall, which coincided with the height of the military offensive and the beginning of the peak of U.S. military, economic and development resourcing into the country. I can tell you a really disturbing question that came to my mind after my trip there this summer. I know Muhammed Tahir mentioned in his interview that he saw the deteriorating conditions of the north. Afghanistan was getting less stable, not more.
Two things stuck with me during my last trip there. One was the deteriorating conditions in the north. More peaceful areas were seeing a resurgence of the Taliban. The Taliban was threatening the road from Balkh to Mazar-i-Sharif. This was a main artery to Kabul and the main city in the north. I’ve never seen that before. This summer the Taliban was on the road at night. The second thing is the increasing instability, accelerating downward spiral of the Karzai government. You had bank runs, collapse of the Kabul banks and arrests for corruption.
This summer there were multiple crises. It’s interesting that this strategy that relies on stabilizing the government through primarily military is actually doing the opposite — increasing instability.
Scott: Matthieu, you’ve been in some of those villages that Muhammad Tahir talked about as perhaps being centers of resistance and perhaps foci of hope with proper economic development. What would you say about that assertion?
Aikins: Well, I’m not sure that economic development always leads to stability. That would actually be a problematic assertion because some of the least economically developed areas in Afghanistan are some of the most stable, like Bamiyan or the Wakhan Corridor. There are a lot of different factors, but there is also a lot of evidence that economic development and a surge of development and military spending actually destabilizes the areas they go into and creates economies of conflict and incentives for warlords, strongmen and insurgents to increase the level of violence.
Peled: I think something that is very interesting and something that our reporters have noted as well is that on a local level in areas like Kapisa the Taliban are also involved in trying to win hearts and minds. For instance, in Tagab in Kapisa there was resistance from the civilians there because the Taliban was trying to prevent road-building projects. After the show of force, the Taliban agreed to negotiate with the locals to allow developments to take place. Now on the one hand this shows how powerful the Taliban are even in Kapisa, which is far from the southern insurgency. It also shows how they have a canny understanding of what the locals want in other areas as well.
In Kapisa, we had a story about how the Taliban was limiting marriage costs by decree, which was incredibly popular in a place where it costs a lot of money for young Afghan men to get married. This again was a very popular move among the locals. It is not quite as simple as villages wanting to take up arms to defeat the Taliban. I mean, Afghans, as we all know, have been through 30 years of war. They’re understandably a bit wary of taking one side or the other because after all, they just want peace and stability. At the moment it is unclear just who exactly is going to bring that.
Scott: Bryan Bender, is there optimism generated from the Pentagon or the State Department? What is your impression of the evidence?
Bender: Well clearly the commanders on the ground are quite confident that they have made progress and improved security. They believe the training of the Afghan security forces, while still a work in progress at best, is at least inching in the right direction. But, the ground truth seems to be that you now have war that has gone on for nearly a decade in a country that has a long history of fighting. I think there are a growing number of U.S. military officials who believe that the people we’re fighting now, including the Taliban, the Haqqani network and this whole other string of groups that have allied themselves with the Taliban are far removed from the Taliban that America went to war with almost a decade ago. I think that is sort of the root of the problem here. This war has morphed well beyond a war against al-Qaida or Islamic extremists that pose a threat to the international community.
I think (David Petraeus), the U.S. general in charge now, is trying to get a handle on the situation by beating back some of the leaders of these insurgent groups, some of their main fighters, so that the U.S. can legitimately say we’ve made the kind of progress that we think is possible and now we’re going to reduce our presence. We’re going to hand over responsibility to the Afghans and we’re going to focus on going after the people who are still there who we think pose a direct threat to the United States. Again, I think that is the main focus here: Buying the security space so the U.S. can eventually, in the next couple of years make a slow, but steady exit.
Peled: I think the relationship between the government of Afghanistan and Washington is a very troubled one. I mean, as WikiLeaks revealed, which we already knew, there really seems to be a lack of confidence on all kinds of levels between the two. I think even now the American coalition strategy is still confused about whether they’re trying to achieve a military defeat of the Taliban or do nation building or trying out various counterinsurgency strategies, or trying to build up security forces.
Scott: It sounds like the answer is yes to all those. “All of the above” as we would say here in the university environment.
Peled: If you can achieve all of the above then fantastic and good luck, but I’m not sure that that’s what we’ve seen.
Aikins: The one that wasn’t mentioned in those options is finding a peace settlement between the conflicting parties. WikiLeaks did reveal the extent to which both the military and the State Department has blocked and undermined any real negotiations with Taliban leadership. There’s been absolutely no good faith attempt to address the real root causes of the conflict.
The root causes are political: the alienation of large segments of the population from central power in Kabul. I should point out that is really what is so problematic about the views that Bryan described. Buying a temporary security base won’t be lasting. It will be temporary because it is buying temporary security with an entrenching conflict that has been going on for many years.
Bender: There are still some who believe that a settlement of some sort is possible. In other words, a negotiated settlement between the Afghan government and the leadership of the Taliban. This would create an insurance policy for future stability.
But having said that, I also think that regardless of whether that happens, the U.S. strategy going forward is to try and gain momentum against the Taliban and some of these other insurgent groups. Clearly, the momentum has been on their side for some time now and I think you’re seeing that with some of the U.S. operations. Petraeus, like he did in Iraq, is going after a lot of high-level to mid-level battlefield leaders and killing them. Petraeus’ strategy in Iraq was to go after the insurgent leaders and make it less and less attractive for people to stand up and say: “OK, I will take charge now.”
I think once the coalition gets to a point where they can confidently think: “Yes, we have beaten them back. We haven’t broken them completely, we haven’t defeated them completely either.” Then whatever is left of the Taliban will be in a position where they want to make a deal. As the U.S. sort of steps back, they hope that the Afghan government can step up. But, at the same time, the U.S. government will maintain some sort of presence in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
Scott: Speaking of putting the pressure on, we’re coming to the end of our show. I wanted Daniella to say whether the 2014 deadline that was set at the NATO summit only a couple of weeks ago is practical or may not be practical as General Petraeus himself seems to be saying right now.
Peled: I think as soon as it was announced there were various NATO officials who were rolling it back from 2014. This will be when the Afghans will be able to take over security. As I said earlier that seems very doubtful and there is lots of fear within the army and within the population. I also think the idea of the Americans keeping a vague presence there and keeping an eye on things, the likely outcome is going to be far graver than the Americans can deal with.
Scott: Bryan, is this a 2014 deadline that we can make?
Bender: I think so. I think actually you’ll see a significant shift in the U.S. strategy before the end of 2012 when Barack Obama has to get re-elected. We won’t be out but I think you’ll see the coalition well on the way of scaling down to try to meet that 2014 deadline.
Scott: A possibility that we will declare a peace. America’s war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, less than a month after 9/11. We are now entering the 10th year. The U.S. and its allies have recently pledged to stay until at least 2014. It is going to be a long three or four years.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Kuba Wuls and Rebecca Wolfson. The director is Travis McMillen, audio by Pat Akers. The floor director is Yue Jiang. The video producer is Erika Croonenberghs. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.