Notes from Afghanistan Part III: The War is Going Badly

For months groups like the Afghanistan Study Group, where I work, have argued that the claims of progress made repeatedly in the American media are not backed by facts and data. Casualty rates are increasing, and security incidents are on the upsurge. Defenders of the U.S. policy would claim violence and attacks are not a good measure of success or failure —an argument, which boiled down amounts to: insecurity is a bad measure of insecurity.

But, whether or not, you believe that violent attacks are a good measure of insecurity, we can judge success or failure of the mission in Afghanistan based on DoD’s own metric—how much strategic territory is controlled by the insurgency. The Pentagon and White House claim that the insurgency has lost “freedom of movement” in the south, often (laughably in my opinion) citing increased IED and assassination attacks to support this claim. (No, this doesn’t make sense to me either).

Now that I am in Kabul, the joke about freedom of movement is even clearer. Ex-pats in Kabul cannot leave their compounds without an escort for fear of kidnapping or terrorist attack. On a tangential note, one of the first lessons you learn here is never ask an Ex-Pat for directions in Kabul. They almost universally don’t know their way around the city at all, a result of the security requirements keeping them off the streets. Early on we asked directions to ISAF from the U.S. embassy and got a blank stare. (ISAF is across the street).

One prominent “expert” in the U.S. claimed earlier this year that a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would result in “fortress Kabul” with State Department officials unable to leave the embassy compound. My response: Have you been to Afghanistan lately? We already have fortress Kabul!

Mobility in the provinces is even more stark. Consider Bamiyan—a stable province in central Afghanistan dominated by ethnic Hazara (and therefore historically fiercely anti-Taliban); also the province which once held the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas. Aid workers tell me that five years ago there were two main routes from Kabul west to this province. One went through Wardak Province south-west of Kabul before bending North. This route has been off-limits to Westerners for at least two years due to Taliban resurgence.

Wardak has gotten so bad, according to one Afghan reporter we talked to, the government officials in this province are afraid to move outside of Provincial Reconstruction Team safe-zones. When officials do travel, they are forced to hide any incriminating documents that would tie them to their work for the government. The Taliban have been known to seize cell phones and call a random number to see if the target is indeed a government official, in which case the victim is kidnapped or killed. Wardak Province, incidentally, was also the site of the downed Chinook helicopter earlier this month, which killed 30 Americans

The second route to Bamiyan from Kabul goes north to the capital of Parwan Province (also the site of a recent Taliban attack), before bending west up the Ghorband Valley. In the Ghorband, insecurity has deteriorated markedly in the last couple months, highlighted by the assassination of the Chief of Bamiyan Provincial Council earlier this summer.

According to a representative from development NGO Aga Khan, the insecurity in Ghorband is partly due to criminal gangs feeding off of the money which has poured into the valley for road construction. Criminal gangs may indeed be a factor, but Martine van Bijlert from the Afghan Analysts Network sees a more sinister explanation. The Taliban, she says, are attempting to encircle Kabul. Indeed the pattern of attacks seems to fit this explanation with broad areas North West South West and South East of Kabul now off-limits to Westerners and even most Afghans. Whatever the explanation, the result has been that overland movement for Westerners and even many Afghans to Bamiyan has been sharply curtailed in the last couple of years.

Bottom line: If “freedom of movement” is a good metric to determine success of the counter insurgency, we are the ones who are losing.

Things aren’t going well, granted, but do the Taliban have a realistic shot at taking a major Afghan city? Could they come back to power? Before coming to Afghanistan, I would have dismissed this possibility. Today, I am less certain. If the U.S. pulls out too quickly, more than one person has told me, the Taliban could retake Kabul. Given how emboldened the insurgency appears, this seems possible if still unlikely. Moving forward, the fear of such a massive military setback will guide U.S. policy making and will likely lengthen the timeline for drawdown. This need not be such a terrible outcome, if crucially bold steps are taken to address the governance and international components of the conflict. More on that later.

Edward Kenney
Afghanistan Study Group Blogger

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