Amid Taliban surge, a witness to Afghanistan's endless war

A retreat by NATO-trained Afghan forces in Kunduz this fall came after more than a decade of military operations against the Taliban. Many recognize the need to include the group in any political settlement. 

Najim Rahim/AP
Afghan laborers rebuild a destroyed shop in Kunduz city, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 1, 2015. Two months after the Taliban rampaged through the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, residents are still sifting through the rubble, wondering how they will ever rebuild and worrying that the insurgents will return.

A brief Taliban takeover of the northern city of Kunduz this fall helped convince President Barack Obama to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan through 2017. 

For Western leaders, the city's collapse was a bitter moment – one that stood in sharp contrast to the day 14 years ago, just weeks after 9/11, when I witnessed advancing anti-Taliban rebel forces who had reached the gates of Kabul. A handful of us journalists had skirted a rebel checkpoint, commandeering a car and racing down the hill into the unknown.

At the bottom, we found a mob of hundreds agitated by visceral hatred for the body of a Taliban fighter lying in the street, an Arab volunteer with long hair.

“We are killing bin Laden!” the crowd shouted. “We have defeated the Taliban!” 

That day, when we entered Kabul, it was as if the air had been sucked out of the city, leaving the kind of nervous vacuum found in conflict zones during points of wholesale transition, as one order departs and before the next one arrives.

It was also a rare instance of hope, with the promise of a new world for Afghanistan. In ensuing weeks, Americans were cheered as they arrived with cash and military hardware and optimism. But almost immediately, Afghanistan threw up a deep set of missions impossible that came tragically into focus in Kunduz in September.  

Attention has since turned to southern Helmand Province, a Taliban heartland close to Pakistan. Taliban fighters laid siege to the strategic town of Sangin and forced Kabul to send in troops. And on Dec. 21, a suicide attack on a NATO-Afghan patrol near Bagram Airfield killed six US soldiers, the deadliest attack on international forces since August.  

At its height, the US and foreign troop presence in Afghanistan topped 130,000. Hundreds of billions of dollars flowed here to rebuild the nation and institute new forms of civil society and democracy.

Yet when put to the test, after years of training, Afghan security forces in Kunduz ran away from Taliban fighters, despite a reported 15-to-1 advantage.

False dawns and disillusionment

For Western officials, the debacle forced the realization that they had to better understand the Taliban – and possibly even include them in a political settlement, a view that was once heretical. For many Afghans, it brought to the fore a central problem that feeds what seems a never-ending conflict: their leaders’ inability or unwillingness to check the corruption and poor governance that drives the population to lose faith.

“If the first province to fall is Kunduz, the last will be Kabul,” says an Afghan engineer who fled Kunduz. He reports incidents where the attacking Taliban were actually welcomed and offered tea by residents – so unhappy are they with corruption in the central government in Kabul.

“The Taliban are not winning hearts and minds, but it is just because of disillusionment,” says Alexey Yusupov, country director of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Kabul. The Taliban “don’t need to do anything, just wait while the government repeatedly doesn’t deliver.”

The saga has a familiar ring of false dawns and broken promises.

In 1979 the Soviets tried their hand, launching a multi-division invasion that within a decade reached 110,000 troops. But it was forced out by a rag-tag crew of Western- and Muslim-state backed Islamist fighters – “freedom fighters,” as President Ronald Reagan called them, who would later form the core of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. 

I saw a stark metaphor of Soviet failure years later along a road in the rugged Panjshir Valley: A powerful Soviet anti-tank rocket had once been fired at a pale slab of limestone. But it left only a small starburst of cracks. For foreigners, this land has been as unforgiving as that limestone.

Now, as the United States surveys the resurgent Taliban and looks for another quick patch-over, it is clear that the verdict of US military historian Robert Baumann on the Soviet war applies directly to America’s own 14-year effort. He found a “pervasive pattern: tactical success that did not add up to tangible, strategic gains.”

A Saudi 'sheikh' emerges

The Soviet withdrawal in early 1989 was followed by years of battle and atrocities between competing Afghan militias, paving the way for the Taliban, who promised stability in exchange for a deep dive into orthodox Islamist and anti-modern beliefs. It also fatefully welcomed Al Qaeda and its leader, a Saudi “sheikh” named Osama bin Laden.

By the late 1990s, checkpoints on the road were marked by shimmering bunches of video and music cassette tapes pulled out of passing cars and tossed aside as forbidden fruit. Executions were conducted in the Kabul stadium. Taliban stalwarts stopped cars during prayer time and forced everyone to the ground to pray.

When I visited the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar in 1999, my bushy-bearded official guide saved me when he overheard a man on the street say, “If I kill this infidel now, I will be in Paradise.” We quickly got away in a motorized rickshaw.

Then Al Qaeda orchestrated the attacks that brought down the twin towers in New York and struck the Pentagon. That brought weeks of US airstrikes that forced the Taliban and Al Qaeda from the capital, and brought Afghan anger to a boil against such radical groups. The Taliban, too, had finally miscalculated.

And now it was the Americans’ turn to try to push Afghanistan forward.

The fate of the remote US outpost at Kamdesh, in Nuristan Province – some five years after the US began its nation-building efforts – encapsulates the difficulties of that task.

Wedged at the bottom of sheer rock cliffs and ridges, corralled by snow-fed torrents, and serviced only by a single dirt road prone to ambush and washouts, it was an unlikely patch of stones near the Pakistani border. For US troops, it proved well nigh indefensible.

The Soviets had experienced the same problem – evidence of which lay in the rusting hulks of an armored convoy that lined the road to Kamdesh.

From the day US Army soldiers arrived in Kamdesh in 2006, they came under attack. When I visited shortly after, eight Purple Heart medals had been awarded in the previous month alone.

Officers put on a brave face as they explained the new “fight and build” strategy. The idea was to keep militants on the run throughout the winter, and deprive them of shelter in the villages while projects and cash convinced people to side with the government.

“You’ve got to come and stay, and plop down in the middle of [insurgent territory], and make them choose to work with you, or fight you, or leave,” said Lt. Col. Mike Howard at the time. “I haven’t attacked a thing up here, but I killed a lot of bad guys because they can’t bear me being here, putting in water pipe.”

Dozens of contracts and $1.3 million was earmarked for the district. But the Taliban simply kidnapped, tortured, and killed a well-known elder who signed a contract. They left him with a warning note pinned to his clothes, “Don’t work with the coalition forces. This will happen to you.”

An outpost besieged

As winter set in, conditions grew worse. Resupply convoys were steadily attacked and burned. Almost every helicopter got shot at by rockets, including one a mere 25 yards from the tiny helipad. Heavy rains flooded the outpost.

“We had a few hot meals last week, but we are back to cold again. No fuel to run the kitchen,” an American engineer wrote me after I left, in a November 2006 e-mail. “At least the fleas are dying off.”

Even when Army civil reconstruction teams went in to help local villages, they found their efforts often coming apart by other US military operations. One secret nighttime raid by Special Forces unit netted an Al Qaeda suspect who had been at a wedding, but left five civilians dead and villagers infuriated. Days later the combat outpost was directly attacked, and US helicopters in pursuit then targeted Kamdesh village itself, resulting in badly wounded civilians and more anti-US outrage.

Worse was to come. In 2009 the Kamdesh outpost was attacked by 300 Taliban. Eight Americans were killed and 27 wounded. The post was partially overrun, and 150 Taliban died. Officially that fight is described as a coalition victory. But it was the type of “victory” that had cursed the Soviets: tactical success, with no strategic gain. 

At the time I remembered the translator who helped me escape on the rickshaw in 1999 – a doctor, and not a Taliban believer. 

But he respected the Taliban, as coming from Afghan soil, even though he found their Al Qaeda “guests” distasteful. The Taliban he felt, “have a very deep understanding of this society.”

Redefining the enemy

That was exactly what was lacking from the US- and NATO-led efforts in Afghanistan, according to a Western official based in Kabul who says much of the past decade and a half were spent working the wrong problem, and simply making mistakes.

“We spent a dozen years trying to impose technical solutions to what were essentially political problems,” says the official. “And sadly for the people of Afghanistan, the technical tools at our disposal were 2,000-pound bombs and farm boys from Iowa with M-16s, so it was a mess.” 

While other Afghan militias with dubious track records and thuggish characters were absorbed in the new government, “we defined our enemy as being the Taliban,” even though all factions were necessary to find a stable solution.

“That kind of talk used to be treasonous,” he adds. “For most of last 14 years you couldn’t say that without someone thinking you were an Al Qaeda sympathizer. And now that’s official US policy” – that most of the Taliban can be reconciled as part of a broader peace process.

Likewise, efforts to “surge” the number of coalition troops into this country did not solve the problem. 

“Violence rose dramatically as we surged troops in. The ability of humanitarian actors, including the UN, to drive out into the countryside and reach people, diminished,” says the official. “Overall, there was no correlation between peace and stability, and the presence of international forces.”

So how far have the Taliban come since that crisp morning in 2001 when angry crowds vented their anger on Taliban fighters? 

In Kunduz in September, people showed they were once again tired of corruption, abuse by pro-government militias, and chronic insecurity made worse by new threats like the emergence of Islamic State recruiting here.

The Taliban, in the brief time they were there, ransacked the houses of government and security officials, and looted official buildings and weapons stores. But they also set up a complaint hotline for local citizens.

“The Taliban will change,” says a senior Afghan development worker in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. He notes that the mujahideen who fought the Soviets “were the ones to destroy the clinics in their day,” but today hold leadership positions, send their children to foreign schools, and have mellowed in their religious zeal.

“This will happen to the Taliban as well,” he asserts, hoping that Afghanistan’s endless wars, this time, may ease. "They will change their mind."

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