It’s been called the Forever War. The United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001. This past summer, Donald Trump said he would send more U.S. troops as advisers to the Afghan military. We sat down with Ashley Jackson, an associate with the Overseas Development Institute and a PhD candidate at King’s College London and May Jeong, an award-winning investigative reporter focused on Afghanistan and visiting scholar at Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU.
FPI: How has the Taliban evolved in recent years in Afghanistan? What new threats arise from this evolution?
May Jeong: Just in the five years or so I’ve been covering Afghanistan, the insurgency has metastasized beyond recognition. To give a very anecdotal example, when I first moved to Kabul security analysts were talking about whether regional district centers falling was a possibility. It seemed unfathomable at the time, but then district centers did begin to fall. Then people started talking about if provincial capitals could be challenged, and then they started being challenged, which seemed incredible. Lunar, a major city in the north, fell for the first time in the fall of 2015. Any watcher that has been following Kunar closely would’ve been able to tell you that all of the variables leading to the fall were there and inevitable. But for a lot of people who weren’t as closely following Kunar, it came as a surprise and that became the norm. Places that I used to be able to travel to, such as Kunar, a province in the east where Restrepo takes place, I can’t go anymore. Commercial flights to the capital in Helmand, Lashkar Gah, Tarin Kot in the Uruzgan province, and elsewhere, have been cancelled, and the only way in and out is on army helicopters or flights. That is one indication of the plummeting security situation there.
The Taliban, as has been very widely reported, has gone through very tumultuous recent years. The longtime founder and ruler, Mullah Omar, has reportedly been dead for quite a while and his successor was killed in a drone strike carrying a fake Pakistani passport while traveling back from Iran. There were a lot of succession battles in these years as well. I guess with the current leader things have slowed down somewhat, but it also means that all of the goodwill that’s been built up with reconciliation efforts gets reset to zero. On the Afghan government side there was democratic transition in September 2014, which cemented the opportunity to start anew, but that also means that you’re starting from scratch. All of the things that haven’t been working you are able to get rid of, which is a good thing, but it also means whatever momentum you were building toward is lost as well.
Ashley Jackson: Absolutely. The Taliban has gained even greater territorial control and influence. According to SIGAR, roughly 40% of the country is contested or under Taliban control. Now more than ever, they can impose their rules on civilians living under their control. And they are building a quasi-state, which is what I have spent the past few months researching in Afghanistan.
Through governing, they are also attempting to show how they’ve changed since their time in power. For example, they publicly claim to allow all girls and boys to go to school. The reality is more complex and it varies across the country. In some places, girls go to school; in other areas, they do not. Men must have long beards and wear traditional dress, and, in some areas, are punished if they do not attend mosque five times a day. But they also monitor schools and clinics, claiming to crack down on corruption and improve teacher attendance, and their swift but brutal brand of justice is nonetheless seen by many people as more effective and less corrupt than the state system.
The Taliban is not the only emerging threat. The emergence of Daesh is widely talked about but it’s a poorly understood and complex phenomena. In many areas, Daesh is comprised of ex-Taliban commanders with no discernable links to the Islamic State. We’ve also seen a rise in other armed factions, particularly pro-government militias (such as the Afghan Local Police or arbaki) that have been widely accused of human rights abuses.
FPI: Do you think Trump’s strategy for Afghanistan is an improvement over his predecessors or not?
MJ: Barnett Rubin, who is a longtime Afghanistan watcher and expert said it best. He said something to the effect of “it’s not any better, it’s just bad in different ways.” The current administration continues to operate on the false assumption that a military victory is possible. We’ve been fighting for 17 years and I don’t even think that there’s a cohesive consensus on how many lives have been lost- Afghan, American or otherwise -and money that’s been spent. There is not much to show for all of the resources that went into fighting the war. The fact that a lot of the policy recommendations have been predicated on this assumption that we can win against the Taliban speaks to the problematic nature of a lot of the decisions that have been made.
AJ: No, I do not think it is an improvement. I’ve been working in or on Afghanistan for eight years, and I have never been more perplexed or alarmed by US strategy. There are two shifts that I find most concerning.
First, the shift in military operations. In the past, there was a comprehensive integrated civilian military approach, where the military worked with civilian agencies and the Afghan government to build governance in areas under Taliban threat. I have been critical of the success of these COIN-based approaches, but what appears to be happening now is this: airstrikes and three-day operations occur in Taliban areas, with almost no civilian or governance component. Which means the Taliban comes right back in. And cycle repeats itself. Civilians suffer and the balance of the conflict is largely unchanged.
White House figures show that the US will likely triple the number of bombs it drops in Afghanistan this year, and there is an increasing disregard for civilian casualties. I’ve just been in Kunduz, where an airstrike on October 31 appears to have killed around 11 civilians and wounded many more. The international and Afghan forces claim that only Taliban, and no civilians, have been killed.
I met with the people affected, including a man who told me he lost his son. He asked me why the military would only come in for a few days and leave again. He believed the true purpose was to punish and kill Afghans, because they were so often bombing houses and killing innocent people. Of course, the Taliban take refuge in civilian homes by force, essentially using civilians as human shields. But you cannot win a war if you turn the Afghan population against you through committing what they see as acts of brutality and as war crimes.
Even if the US kills or captures a number of Taliban and disrupts their command structure through these operations, this isn’t necessarily good news. It creates openings for other, more dangerous and extreme groups, such as Daesh. We already see this strategy benefitting such groups in places like Jawzjan and Nangarhar. Fragmenting the Taliban in this way ultimately means that it will also be harder to secure any peace deal, which is the only way the war will end.
Which brings me to my second worry. The new strategy seems to lack any serious attention to dialogue and peace talks. Reports that the Trump administration wants to close the Taliban political office in Qatar was perceived here as the US simply wanting to prolong the war. The war will not be won militarily. It can only end through a political settlement. This will take years, of course, but we need to begin that work now. Only the US can get the ball rolling.
FPI: Key data on the Afghan war was censored in the most recent US military report. What details have been censored and why are those details important?
MJ: The Afghan government asked the US government who made sure SIGAR, the auditing arm of the Afghan mission, would black out details about casualty rates. The numbers, whether redacted or not, would be conservative estimates anyways, and the very fact that the Afghan government feels the need to cover it up is probably an indication that the war isn’t going well. If you’re winning the war you have no incentive to want to hide anything, really, and the fact they feel the need to means they’re worried about morale and they want to protect whatever morale they think they have left.
AJ: One way to craft a narrative of success is to deny, or hide, any evidence of failure. They appear to be specifically censoring data on the recruitment of Afghan security forces and the casualties these forces are suffering. This is a problem because this information is critical to understanding whether the Afghans have the capability to take the lead on security – a key objective of this and past US administration strategies. Because, as we all know, the US’s stated end goal is to leave and hand over security to the Afghans.
Recruitment of Afghan forces is an area where some fragile progress has been made. Retaining and building on these gains will be a decisive factor in the war. It might even be the decisive factor. We know from SIGAR that Afghan security forces’ casualty rates are increasing, which is likely to negatively affect morale and recruitment. If the media and the American public does not have access to accurate data, then there is the risk that a narrative of success can be spun and taxpayers misled. Meanwhile, the reality on the ground may be very different.
FPI: How does the opium trade impact the war?
AJ: Significantly. Opium production more than doubled this year alone and has reached record highs. The UN estimates that opium production accounts for 16% of the gross domestic product. The US has recently started publicizing that it has bombed opium production sites, but it feels a bit like groundhog day. The US alone has spent over eight billon dollars on eradication efforts over the years. The record amount of opium production today demonstrates how little long-term impact this money has had.
In Taliban influenced or controlled areas, the Taliban institutes a highly lucrative “narcotax” on opium cultivation and transport. The Taliban also gains support from poor farmers who, by returning to poppy cultivation, are able to earn a much better income than through other means. And it is a powerful way for the Taliban to demonstrate that the government is powerless to control the problem.
it’s not just the Taliban benefitting. The real problem is that there is significant collusion amongst opium producers, the Taliban and Afghans in the government and security forces. Even when the international community thinks they are making progress, it’s not quite what it seems. Deals are struck among government officials, traffickers and producers to give the appearance of eradication. In reality, the drug business just keeps on going.
FPI: Is there an end to this conflict in sight?
MJ: The fact that the war hasn’t ended means that peace hasn’t been prioritized. Everything is within our reach, it’s just a matter of deciding what matters to us more. The fact that the war has been going on for so long, we have to assume it’s because priorities haven’t been set in a way that incentivizes the end of violence. As it stands, all of the actors involved have no reason to stop this incredibly lucrative venture. The Afghan elites have done incredibly well with the war and they see no reason to put an end to that. The American government has done extraordinary things in other parts of the country and are capable of quite a bit. The fact this hasn’t been used to end the war has to mean that there are other things that are considered of more worth. The current casualty numbers, to put it very crassly, is something that’s very manageable for the military. It’s considered to be a “reasonable” sum to pay for keeping “terrorists” at bay. The incentive structure is there for the war to end, and without that proper incentive structure the conflict will continue.
AJ: Not right now. I’ve spent the past month interviewing ordinary civilians and Taliban fighters, and they seem to generally believe there is no hope for peace at present. I’m always surprised by how much most Afghans I talk to seem to believe the US wants the war to continue. I’ve resorted to pulling up US opinion polls and statements from Trump on my phone to argue against this, but it’s a hard argument to make given the ramp up in airstrikes and the lack of any clear US peace effort.
There is so much more that can, and should, be done. Peace can start in small ways. Local dialogues and community-level peacebuilding projects are incredibly important. There are a million ways to begin to build a foundation for a political settlement, regardless of how dire things may seem. I only wish the international community were investing more in such efforts.
Despite the deteriorating situation, I’m still hopeful. I want to be able to show my children and grandchildren – when I have them! – how beautiful this country is. And I firmly believe that day will come.
FPI: Do you have any book or movie recommendations for people who want to understand this issue better?
MJ: For books, I would recommend No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal, An Intimate War by Mike Martin, and An Enemy We Created by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn. If you read those three books, you will have a pretty good sense of what happened.
For films, I highly recommend Adam Curtis’ documentary Bitter Lake. He went through the BBC archives and wove together the modern history of Afghanistan, and it’s all archival footage and yet so riveting. The second film isn’t about Afghanistan, but if you want to get a sense of what it’s like to live in a small town, and the corrosive nature of corruption, which a lot of rural Afghans struggle with (70% of the country live in the rural areas) a film about what happens to a family living in rural Russia is super indicative. It’s called the Leviathan. For so-called War on Terror films: Apocalypse Now and Jarhead back-to-back. The two films ask the question, can there be an antiwar film. (Answer is no.) If you want to get a sense of what PTSD does to an individual Maryland is a great film. Or another film I really liked, because it captured the sense of not knowing that often accompanies being in war, is a film called In the Valley of Elah.
AJ: Anand Gopal’s No Good Men Among the Living is excellent, both because it reads almost like a novel and focuses on Afghan perspectives. I’m looking forward to reading Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn’s Taliban Reader when it comes out, as well as Steve Coll’s forthcoming Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Restrepo sticks with me, partly because I lived where it takes place and it so precisely portrays how the US military effort went wrong. Tell the Spring Not to Come This Year is another documentary worth checking out if you want to understand the war through the eyes of the Afghan Forces.
But its generally not the documentaries or foreign policy tomes that teach me the most or are the most enjoyable. At the risk of sounding terribly pretentious, its fiction, or poetry, or art, or biographies.
I love Ghani Khel’s poetry and writing, which is sharp and satirical but romantic too. Very little has been translated to English, but you can find some online. The Pathans is especially great, and his life story is incredible too.
Nancy Hatch Dupree, who recently passed away, has another incredible life story. Hamid Karzai used to refer to her as the grandmother of Afghanistan. She had amazing love affairs, both with her husband, whom she met in Kabul in the 1960s, and with Afghanistan. James Verini wrote about her for the Atavist, and Afghanistan Analysts Network published a fabulous look back at her life. Her own writing is fantastic too; she has a sharp, no-nonsense critique of women’s rights discourses in Afghanistan.
FPI: What advice do you have for your fellow interruptors?
MJ: We already know what we have to do, which is keep being women who help other women.