Fortress Kabul and Afghanistan’s Warlords

 Image: “Students stand in formation to greet a congressional delegation at the Afghan National Police Academy, Feb. 20, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The police displayed how to clear a building and search a suspect to a congressional delegation visiting the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan supported training site. / NATO Training Mission Afghanistan / Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Ernesto Hernandez Fonte / Date Taken:02.20.2011 / Location:KABUL, AF”

Regional caudillos might have more sway than the central government.

Afghanistan is once again embattled in another bloody fighting season. Major population centers, to include Kunduz city and Lashkar Gah, are under threat of falling to the Taliban. U.S. and NATO forces continue to brief that Afghanistan still holds the major population centers and that the Taliban are unable to hold terrain. However, reports emanating from the battlefield indicate that Afghan forces are merely occupying a handful of administrative buildings throughout Helmand, effectively creating a fortress Lashkar Gah as the last bastion of government force in the province.

The same could be said of Kunduz city, where Taliban forces have effectively surrounded the populous city and captured most of its surrounding villages.

As each year passes by, Afghan forces continue to lose ground to the Taliban, though as indicated by Brigadier General Charles H. Cleveland, the Pentagon spokesman for Operation Resolute Support, the Taliban have been ineffective this fighting season—as he described the combat in Helmand, “15 to 20 Taliban would assault a checkpoint or a district center, a smaller group of Afghan forces at the location would withdraw, the Taliban would loot the place, then the Afghan forces would come back and move them out.

“What we see is the Taliban are not able to hold any specific terrain. Most important is, they are not able to hold any of the population centers and that's really what the Afghans have built their entire strategy on for this campaign season, is being able to secure key population areas as well as key infrastructure, “Cleveland said.

This description of the combat situation in Helmand does not seem to effectively explain how the Taliban now control the majority of Helmand Valley and Kunduz province. As Afghanistan continues to lose ground around the country, U.S. and NATO forces continue to apply a Western notion of military success by detailing to the public that all is well because the Afghan government still controls the major city centers of Lashkar Gah, Kunduz, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif, while the countryside and rural Afghans are besieged and controlled by the Taliban.

This same mistake was made after the United States overthrew the Taliban in 2001, effectively declaring the Taliban destroyed—the United States captured major population centers, hoisted the flag and declared victory. In 2005, George W. Bush diverted much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan to Iraq, highlighting the administration’s belief that the war was over. What was not anticipated by U.S. and coalition forces was the speed and ability of the Taliban forces to reignite the insurgency by breeding resentment and fostering disillusionment in rural sectors of Afghan society; as Marine General James Mattis would say, “the enemy gets a vote.”

This has been the case in Afghanistan for centuries; Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain and decentralized economic and political system has always afforded the rural elements in society an upper hand in counterrevolutionary actions. The ability to mobilize the rural sectors against the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in the 1980s invited the Soviet intervention to stave off collapse—though it would eventually dissolve in 1992, heralding the warlord era and rise of the Taliban.

There appears to be a major disconnect between U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan and an accurate assessment of the economic, social and political climate in the war torn region. Western forces continue to count guns, butter and bodies—a Clausewitzian center-of-gravity focus—but have effectively lost site of the sociopolitical climate in Afghanistan.

This New York Times map points out the problem. Much of what is dominated by the Taliban is in fact rural countryside, but rural areas are the real center of gravity in Afghanistan.

Another question we should ask ourselves is whether or not Kabul really even controls these population centers. Has Afghanistan already descended into another warlord period?

General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ashraf Ghani’s current Vice President and a former warlord under the Northern Alliance, hails from Jawzjan district and has been embroiled in a struggle with another powerful Afghan warlord, Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province.

Both men fought against each other for control of northern Afghanistan during the civil war that preceded the Soviet withdrawal and once again after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Noor is an ethnic Tajik and former mujahedin commander in the Jamiat-e Islami political party; Dostum is an ethnic Uzbek and chairman of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan party or Junbish—a Communist-aligned institution. The political divisions that separate the two are steep, though due to increased insecurity, they have been forced to work with each other to quell the insurgency in Afghanistan.