By Graeme Smith
17 January, 2014
“The Taliban are still here,” a pharmacist who sells medicine to remote villages in the southeast told me last month in this shabby frontier town. “People are anxious about 2014 because the troops are leaving.”
After his customers started to understand recently that the United States and its allies will pull out most of their forces this year, he said, his sales of medication for anxiety, depression and insomnia increased 30-fold. Fear of a Taliban resurgence is so widespread that it is hurting property prices and the value of Afghanistan’s currency, scaring investors away and impelling Afghans to seek foreign asylum. Worries about the year ahead are a kind of pathology here.
Yet if Afghans are too scared about the withdrawal of American troops, the United States government may not be scared enough. In its latest report to Congress, the Pentagon said that fighting had eased in 2013, reporting a 12 percent drop in security incidents over the previous summer.
The United Nations, by contrast, found an 11 percent increase between May to August 2013, compared with the same period in 2012. During my visits to seven Afghan provinces over the last year, I saw no sign of the war cooling down.
In the short term, the Taliban are very unlikely to take over the country, or even march on major cities, but trouble should be expected in smaller outposts. Peace negotiations with the Taliban have stalled. This, combined with the imminent pullout of foreign forces, has given insurgents renewed confidence that the military balance of power will shift in their favour. In Kandahar last summer, one Taliban supporter (and sometime participant) confidently predicted that the insurgents would soon capture Kabul, repeating the northward sweep that brought them to power in 1996.
He didn’t seem to grasp the obstacles: Even if international forces are reduced, as anticipated, to less than one-fifth of the 84,000 troops now deployed, Afghan security forces still number roughly 350,000. That’s a lot of firepower standing on the road to Kabul. The capital itself, despite a few spectacular attacks, has enjoyed some respite.
The provincial capitals I visited — Kandahar, Asadabad, Gardez, Jalalabad, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Maimana — also seemed well-defended. According to Western analysts, in Kandahar, the largest city in the south, insurgent attacks have dropped by half since 2011, the violent peak of American troop surges.
It’s a different story among the few hundred small outposts in the outlying districts. In places where international troops are pulling back, Afghan officials reported a rising number of attacks by the Taliban and told me they were worried about administrative centres being overrun in coming years. Some of these are strategically inconsequential desert towns or mountain hideouts, but losing others could enable the Taliban to choke off major roads.
The insurgents have already resorted to medieval siege tactics, surrounding some towns and cutting off food supplies. (As a result, the price of wheat in Azra district of Logar Province last summer was six times the usual.) They put up roadblocks to prevent wounded Afghan police and soldiers from reaching medical help, leaving them to die of minor injuries as they screamed into their phones, begging for scarce helicopters. Some Afghan cities risk becoming lonely archipelagos of government influence.
Local security forces have responded with desperate measures. Afghan commanders in Faryab Province described to me in September a risky summer offensive to smash a Taliban outpost. The insurgents were flying a white Taliban flag over their shadow office, displaying their rising presence even hundreds of miles northwest of their heartland. In the absence of American air support, the government troops deployed a cavalry charge, sending out dozens of men firing automatic weapons on horseback. (The operation was successful.)
Fraying government control at the edges should serve as a warning. An unravelling of the Afghan state can be avoided, but it will require the international community to stay involved. The mission has not been accomplished, despite what Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has claimed. Afghan forces stand a fighting chance, but they need help.
Afghan and American leaders must sign a bilateral security agreement to allow a modest number of NATO troops to stay. Afghan forces need more helicopters, as well as logistics, intelligence and medical support. They will need, at a minimum, the $4.1 billion in annual funding promised by participants at the NATO summit in Chicago in 2012.
There is no other option, according to a local journalist in Gardez. “Fighting in Afghanistan is like grabbing a wolf’s tail,” he said. “While you hold on, you’re worried it will bite you. But if you let go, you are sure it will bite you.”
Graeme Smith is a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group and the author of “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan.”