The Skeptics

Pakistan and the Taliban Team Up against Afghanistan

In response to a massive suicide attack in Kabul that killed and wounded over four hundred people, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made an unprecedented appearance before a joint session of parliament on April 25. During the impassioned speech, he rallied his countrymen to stand united against the threat, and promised to go all-out against the Taliban, no longer relying on Pakistan to bring the insurgents to the peace table. What remains to be seen, however, is whether President Ghani will be able to make good on his promises. Recent battlefield setbacks at the hands of the Taliban and the Pakistani military, unfortunately, are complicating Ghani’s ability to deliver.

There has been much in the Western press on the temporary loss of the province of Kunduz to the Taliban late last year. Government control over Kunduz remains tenuous. More recently virtually all the gains made by U.S. and NATO troops in the key province of Helmand in the south have been lost, and the Taliban are threatening to take control of yet more territory. Government forces have thus far been unable to retake many of the lost districts. Getting virtually no notice in Western press, however, has been a significant deteriorating security situation in the eastern part of the country, particularly in Kunar Province.

In 2011 I was an Army officer serving in Afghanistan and traveled to Kunar Province, which abuts the Pakistan border, to assess the needs of several U.S. combat brigades in the field. I spent time at the two biggest bases in that area, Combat Outpost (COP) Bostick and COP Monti. As I wrote in the Armed Forces Journal upon my return, the state of the war at that time was going poorly for U.S. and Afghan forces. But as I have recently discovered, the situation on the ground in Kunar and elsewhere in eastern Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically since the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in 2014. The Afghan National Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) are not solely to blame, however.

During my visit to COP Monti in 2011, I met an Afghan gentleman I’ll call Mr. Salarzai (I am withholding his full name to protect him from Taliban reprisal) who was serving as a cultural advisor to U.S. forces in that area. We have remained friends via email and Facebook ever since. Earlier this week during a visit to Kabul I was reunited with Mr. Salarzai. I asked him what the security situation in the Kunar had been since the withdrawal of U.S. troops. What he told me was both shocking and disturbing.

“Right now the government only occupies about 30 percent of the province,” Mr. Salarzai told me. “And of the 30 percent they occupy, they do not actually provide security to the people, because it’s all they can do to secure themselves. Rarely,” he continued, “do they even leave their bases.” When I asked him why, he said it was because they had no choice. “These Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers are good guys. I know many of them,” he said. But the bases they inherited from the United States have fallen into disrepair, the equipment is barely functioning and they have virtually no air support, he explained.

Three weeks ago, outside of a certain government checkpoint in Kunar province, a helicopter was landing to bring supplies. Mr. Salarzai told me the landing zone was maybe twenty meters outside the compound. “When the landing gear hit the ground, the helicopter blew up. It landed on an IED planted by the Taliban. If the government can’t even secure twenty meters outside its own compound,” he said in frustration, “how can they defend us?”

Those troops who occupy the bases, however, are at a major disadvantage to the Taliban. “When the U.S. was here and the Taliban attacked the base from the mountains overlooking the bases, the U.S. troops would call in airstrikes, and within minutes, F-16s or attack helicopters would come in and blow up the fighters. Now,” he lamented, “there is no air support. So all the ANA guys can do is hide behind the barriers.” I contacted the governor of Kunar Province, Haji Wahidullah Kalemzai, and he confirmed much of Mr. Salarzai’s account—but added more troubling, current information.

Near Ghaziabad, Kunar province, recent heavy rains washed out a major section of the road. The Taliban took advantage of the blockage and set up heavy machine guns on the high ground, the governor told me, and had taken the ANA and repair crews under direct fire when they tried to repair the roads. The mountain road is the only resupply route for the ANA in that area. “If we don’t get air support to take out the Taliban on the high ground,” Mr. Kalemzai said, “our troops will be in great danger as other Taliban troops move on them.” This situation, however, isn’t the only—or the most dangerous—threat facing government troops in Kunar.