Sayed Jan carries with him fresh mementoes of the stepped-up war in Afghanistan: His scarf is riddled with bullet holes. There’s the healing wound on his neck from the masked gunmen who shot up his truck cab. And his orange mobile phone carries the chaotic video of the full Taliban ambush that blew up tankers in his fuel convoy.
“There are always rumors of attack, but our armed escorts will never tell us,” says Mr. Sayed about the attack on his convoy in northeast Kunar province. “After the fighting starts, then we know.”
Ambushes like these may barely register on the daily incident report for Afghanistan, where a complex attack in the heart of Kabul killed 64 a month ago and garnered international attention. The heavily fortified capital has taken such blows before, but this one came with a sense that the Taliban detect new opportunities to sow chaos as they begin what they have said will be an unprecedented seasonal offensive.
The state of play poses tough questions for the West, where attention to Afghanistan has fluctuated during a decade and half of war.
Hopes were high that the war would disappear with the exit of most US and NATO troops by 2014, and that the new technocratic President Ashraf Ghani would usher in better and less-corrupt governance. Yet his unity government in Kabul is hobbled by corruption, gridlock, and shriveling Western interest and investment. Recent kidnapping attempts and other cases involving kidnapped foreigners have prompted the US to warn that the threat “continues to be very high.”
Numbers tell the story: Violent deaths nationwide have multiplied four-fold since 2013, to 15,000 last year, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Last year, the number of Afghan “illegal migrants” reaching the European Union reportedly hit an all-time high of 223,000. The Taliban control or have significant influence over more territory – perhaps one-third of the country – than at any time since they were toppled from power in 2001.
President Obama is grappling with how to address a conflict he vowed to get America out of, and Afghan insecurity will be a top agenda item at the NATO summit in Warsaw in July.
Still, there are signs the government is taking greater action. After the Kabul attack, Mr. Ghani gave an uncharacteristically fierce response aimed at the Taliban and their Pakistani backers. Western officials say from 500kg to 900kg of military-grade explosives were used in the Kabul attack, sharply raising tension with Pakistan.
Afghan enemies “enjoy shedding their countrymen’s blood” and the “time for unjustified amnesty is over,” Ghani told a joint session of parliament. Those engaged in terrorism would be executed, he vowed, and six Taliban militants were put to death on May 8.
“People are delighted that Ghani is finally ready to fight,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named. “This is definitely a populist turn by the president. It’s been one of the things he done that suggests he is going back to more traditional politics in some ways.”
But such eye-for-an-eye politics has yielded limited success in the past. The Taliban have now escalated, too, claiming to have equipped “thousands” of suicide bombers to “take immediate, bloody revenge.”
“The Taliban aren’t saying, ‘Oh, gee, you are executing a few of our people. We’ll be nicer now,’ says the Western official. "No, they’re promising revenge. It’s not a deterrent.”
Still, that is not all the government is doing against the Taliban.
Afghan intelligence “is really pouring money and weapons and resources into trying to fuel Taliban infighting,” says the Western official. Reuters reported last week about an undercover, 300-strong unit fielded by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in southern Helmand province.
Local officials claimed some success – including an intra-Taliban battle that left 30 fighters dead, reportedly prompted by the NDS unit – but the Taliban told Reuters they had “very strong intelligence, and find those who want to infiltrate our ranks.”
The challenge for NATO members will be to recognize “how dire the situation is” and decide what level to fund the Afghan military forces, which “in reality are barely hanging on,” and in need of foreign cash, says the Western official. Those forces are permeated with corruption, with “ghost [soldiers] in the ranks, and hollow units” receiving salaries.
The Taliban have captured a key road in the south near Kandahar, and are moving forces as if in a bid to encircle their former stronghold. Learning lessons from bloody divisions of Islamic factions in the 1990s, the Taliban have also worked to keep unified by crushing or negotiating with opposing factions, since the announced death last summer of former leader Mullah Omar.
Hitting the most vulnerable
While attacks like those in Kabul dominate headlines, it is retail insecurity like the attack on Sayed’s convoy that spreads fear. Few Afghans remain untouched by the war, and his story illustrates how it can harm the most vulnerable.
When the Monitor first met Sayed in November 2015, his village in remote Kunar province had been taken over by jihadists of the self-declared Islamic State (IS). After being harassed and questioned, and seeing neighbors killed and their houses burned, Sayed decided to flee to Kabul, to prepare to extract his family one at a time so at to avoid alerting IS to their exodus.
Over the coming months, with the help of an uncle, the entire family, with nine children, managed to get to Kabul.
“Several times, IS asked my family: ‘Where is that man?’” recalls Sayed, who in the past drove trucks for the US military from a base in Kunar. “When the family left, IS burnt our house… I thank God my family is healthy, and left Kunar.”
But cash was a problem, and the few dollars a day he made driving a taxi not enough. By contrast, the pay for tanker truck drivers in Kunar province was high: $400 for every convoy completed. His first convoy had barely been rolling 20 minutes on its 3 ½-hour journey from Asadabad to Jalalabad when the Taliban struck.
Most of Sayed’s video was shot from a ditch as vehicles burned, and panicking drivers called their families.
“If the soldiers can’t fight, they should give us their guns,” shouts one driver.
“Shoot the target!” shouts another driver, at one soldier whose heavy machine gun barrel jerks randomly as he shoots. Such scenes may only embolden the Taliban, since they launched their “spring offensive” on April 12, vowing to “renew our jihadist determination” and “employ all means…to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition.”
“Some of the Taliban’s confidence can be seen in the growing accuracy of their statements,” says the Western official. “Their propaganda used to be wildly inaccurate. They would report battles when there were no battles, report casualties that were 10 times or a hundred times off reality. And now they are just getting more and more honest.”
Please follow Scott Peterson on Twitter at @peterson__scott