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Good News From Afghanistan, Sort Of

Afghanistan Army

If there’s a consensus among observers of what’s happening in Afghanistan (and VM has heard these views from Indian and European observers as well as those in the US), it is this: the long NATO presence has really changed the country in some important ways. Economic development, construction of road networks, educational progress and much else has made Afghanistan a very different place from what it was in 2001 or 1989. This new Afghanistan is not simply a victim waiting for the Taliban to fall upon it the minute NATO leaves. The Afghan army in particular is sometimes underestimated by pessimists. Something real has been built there.

The New York Times sums up the good and bad news: “With this year’s fighting season nearly over, [Afghan and American] officials say the good news is that the Afghan forces mostly held their own, responding to attacks well and cutting down on assassinations. But at the same time, the Afghans were unable to make significant gains and, worse, suffered such heavy casualties that some officials called the rate unsustainable.”

Meanwhile, the Afghan government remains weak and divided and probably won’t be able to maintain authority over the whole country. The Taliban can’t be prevented from asserting control in some areas, particularly those closest to Pakistan. “In some areas of the south and east, most notably in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, the Taliban were able to restrict the movement of Afghan forces and inflict heavy casualties,” the Times reports.

The future balance of forces in the country is likely to reflect the balance of interests and engagements among the outsiders who have a stake in what happens there: Pakistan, India, Iran, China, Russia and NATO to the degree that it or the US retains an interest and a presence. Some kind of “soft partition” might result—a weak government in Kabul and different regions under the influence of different powers.

But before Afghanistan settles into a pattern like this, the Taliban is likely to make a big effort, perhaps with backing from friends in Pakistan and elsewhere, to recover the national power it lost in 2001. If that effort is beaten back, there’s a chance that stability of a sort can return to Afghanistan, and a status quo better than that of 2001. But this would still leave large chunks of the country under the control of people who, in the past, allowed their territory to be used by those making plans for major terrorist actions in the US and elsewhere. Don’t expect a quick end to the drone flights and bombings in this part of the world.

[Afghan soldiers photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Bradley Lail (U.S. armed forces)]

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  • jeburke

    Ditto what VM wrote. I’d just add that even in 2001, the Taliban did not control much of the country, the entire north — where more than 40% of the country’s population lived — having been under the control of Massoud’s United Front or the Uzbek chieftain, Abdul Rashid Dostum. And Taliban control in much of its territory was hardly ironclad, resting on affiliation with the Taliban of various influential tribal leaders and “warlords.” Many of these Taliban supporters switched sides when the Taliban were routed at the end of 2001.

  • USNK2

    “The Afghan army…” is always underestimated by those who do not know history, which seems to include every American pundit who still relies on the New York Times for understanding Afghanistan.

  • lukelea

    “NATO presence has really changed the country in some important ways”

    We’ll see.

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