Nolan Peterson is a freelance war correspondent. He previously was a U.S. Air Force special operations pilot and combat operations director in Iraq, serving over 250 hours of combat time in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an in-depth editorial published by the Daily Caller titled “The Afghan War is Not a Lost Cause,” Peterson explains how significant progress is being made in Afghanistan that the media isn’t covering, such as the increasing capability and independence of Afghan security forces and positive political trends.
Peterson warns that a premature, politically calculated withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan could unravel hard-fought gains and open up opportunities for the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the like.
The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Nolan Peterson:
Clarion Project: Your recent editorial was remarkable in its detail and optimistic assessment. Why isn’t the media reporting about the war in Afghanistan similarly? Are there still embedded reporters there?
Nolan Peterson: There are a lot of very courageous, incredibly intelligent journalists in Afghanistan, but I feel like most of them are getting the story wrong. The U.S. will inevitably leave behind a country that has a lot of problems, that’s a fact. But it’s looking increasingly likely that we will also be leaving behind a country that can deal with its own problems.
I think one problem is that most civilian journalists carry with them the same biases as their audience. For example, most Americans might perceive the recent uptick in Afghan Army casualties and Taliban attacks as evidence that the war is going poorly when, in reality, the reason for these trends is that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is winning the fight and has the Taliban fighting for its life. The Taliban right now are like a dog backed into a corner, and they’re biting back—but that doesn’t mean they’re winning. It indicates the opposite, actually.
I also think that most journalists, like most Americans, are confused about what our ultimate objective is in Afghanistan. Many in the military came to the conclusion a long time ago that the Taliban will likely continue to have a presence in Afghanistan that outlasts the U.S. adventure there, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the war.
As long as we can leave behind a country that can take care of itself and can stay standing in the face of an insurgency that will likely simmer for many years to come, then than it is a victory by some measure. And that is likely the best possible outcome we can expect.
Clarion: One of the common themes we hear is that the Taliban is “coming back.” Is that true? Are they regaining strength and territory?
Peterson: The Taliban is not coming back. They are upping the pace of the war and the rate of their attacks in an attempt to destabilize the country in the run-up to April’s elections. In a lot of ways, ruining the elections is a do-or-die moment for the insurgents, and so they have abandoned the typical winter “off-season” from combat.
If the elections go well, then the government, bolstered by its strengthening military, will look more legitimate and stronger in the eyes of the people than it ever has before. And the Taliban knows this. And so what some might perceive as a Taliban comeback, I see as the group’s death throes.
Clarion: You wrote extensively about the increasing competence and independence of the Afghan security forces. Can you summarize that success, why it took so long and what deficiencies remain?
Peterson: Their success is most evident in their ability to independently plan and execute operations—and win. I believe this took so long because, for many years, the U.S. was focused on winning the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people by building public works projects and infrastructure. But these efforts did little to gain the Afghan people’s support in fighting the Taliban, because they were well-aware the U.S. would be leaving the country eventually, and they would be left to deal with the Taliban’s revengeful ire without the U.S. at their back.
The tipping point lately has been the renewed focus on developing the operational and logistical capabilities of the Afghan military and focusing less on rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure. I think U.S. politicians and military planners finally began to understand Hobbes—so long as the people feared for their safety, they were unlikely to be swayed by the allure of fancy new roads and dams.
Now that they feel like there is a long-term alternative to the Taliban in Afghanistan, they are more willing to support their government and subvert the insurgency. ANA officers report that they have seen a significant uptick in civilian informants ratting out Taliban strongholds and weapons caches. They attribute this shift in opinion to budding public confidence in the ANA.
Clarion: What’s the attitude of the Afghan population towards the Taliban, the U.S. and Iran?
Peterson: The Afghan people are deeply skeptical of foreigners. For that reason, they distrust Iran and they are increasingly skeptical of the Taliban, which they know is largely funded and populated by elements in Pakistan.
With U.S. forces off the battlefield and relegated to advisory roles, the ANA can now paint the war as one between homegrown Afghan troops and foreign Taliban fighters from Pakistan. This has created a tipping point in public opinion against the insurgency and in support of the ANA.
Iran is trying to make inroads in Afghanistan, as evidenced by a recent visit by Iranian President Rouhani to Kabul and a subsequent pact between the two countries. Iran almost went to war with the Taliban in the 1990s, however, and so they have no interest in seeing the insurgency topple the current government. What Iran really wants is easier access to China to transport its oil and natural gas and develop easier trade connections.
Clarion: Why is President Karzai, who owes his power and life to the U.S., stoking anti-American sentiment?
Peterson: It is no secret in Afghanistan that Obama wants all U.S. troops out of the country by the time his term is over. Karzai is well-aware of what happened to the former leader of the Soviet-backed government when it fell to the Taliban. He was murdered in a very brutal way.
I believe Karzai is making a deal for this own life, trying to demonstrate empathy for the Taliban with the hope that, should the current government fall, he won’t meet the same grisly end as his predecessor.
Clarion: Do you believe a Status of Forces Agreement that permits U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan will be signed? If not, will all the progress that’s been made be lost?
Peterson: I do not believe the Bilateral Security Agreement will be signed so long as Karzai is in power. It is important to note, however, that the Loya Jirga [Afghan assembly] strongly supported the move when it met last year. The Afghan National Army wants the BSA signed and the majority of the current presidential candidates are also in favor. That makes me hopeful that, once Karzai is gone, the deal will move forward.
The answer to the second part of your question is yes—absolutely. The ANA knows how to fight, there is no question about that. They routinely best the Taliban on the battlefield, but they still have a long way to go as far as training and equipping their soldiers.
Without long-term U.S. financial and logistical help, I don’t think the ANA can continue to successfully operate as an institution. It can win battles but to win the longer strategic fight, it has to develop the attributes that will guarantee its longevity. That is why they need U.S. help so desperately.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.