Are Taliban and Mercenaries Delegitimizing the Afghan Gov’t?

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Men on a hill in Kabul province. The province had the highest number of civilian casualties in 2017 due to suicide and complex attacks in Kabul city. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
Men on a hill in Kabul province. The province had the highest number of civilian casualties in 2017 due to suicide and complex attacks in Kabul city. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

From imperialist superpowers to chaos agents, Afghanistan’s new enemies come in strange forms: the Taliban and mercenaries.

The following article is the final post in a four-part series featuring conversations with military veterans who served in Afghanistan to explore what went wrong and what comes next.

Clarion’s National Correspondent Shireen Qudosi speaks with a former special forces soldier who served as a military trainer and adviser at the Kabul Military Training Center in 2002. For security reasons, our source could not give out his name for our interview. We will refer to him as Anon.


Clarion: Can you tell us about the work you were doing in Kabul?

Anon: In 2002, I initially worked with Afghan Militia Forces as part of a 12-man U.S. Special Forces Operational Detachment A. Later, my team redeployed to the Kabul Military Training Center where we served as trainers and advisers to the Afghan National Army (ANA). We trained ANA soldiers at the squad, platoon and company level and then deployed with them on low-level combat operations. In addition, we conducted unilateral direction action operations as directed.  

Clarion: Can you give us an assessment on the increased Taliban attacks on Afghan military and police forces?

Anon: Two weeks ago, the Taliban conducted a series of highly coordinated complex attacks in advance of parliamentary elections in Afghanistan scheduled for October. This happened at the same time as the Taliban is conducting negotiations with U.S. government representatives in Doha and negotiations with Afghan government officials in Turkey.

To what degree is the Taliban trying to weaken the government of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani as these talks take place? In the wake of these attacks, Ghani’s National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar resigned, and Ghani rejected the resignations of three other top-ranking officials: Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak, Defense Minister Tareq Shah Bharami and Intelligence Chief Masoum Stanekzai.

There are several additional takeaways.  

  1. The Taliban attacks in and around Ghazni were effective but came at a cost. Hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed and the Taliban was unable to hold the territory it seized. At the tactical level, the attacks failed. On a broader strategic level, however, the Taliban showed it can mobilize hundreds of fighters in multiple locations and conduct numerous attacks on a precise timeline. As a show of force it was a success and demonstrated to the Afghan people, the NATO coalition and ISIS-K (ISIS-Khorasan Province) that the Taliban is a viable force after 16 years of war. Far from being defeated, the Taliban move freely through 65% of the country and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are unable to provide security in many rural areas.
  2. The Ghazni attacks also showed that ANSF are not capable of facing the multitude of threats in Afghanistan without continued support from the NATO coalition. This is due to the marginal quality of ANA soldiers (absent Afghan Commandos), corruption within the Afghan Ministry of Defense and the inability of the Ministry of Defense to consistently pay ANA soldiers and resupply ANA combat outposts when they have enemy contact. This will not change in the near term.

There is an ebb and flow to the Taliban’s ‘boots on the ground.’ After Ghazni, with hundreds dead, it will take time to replenish fighters and the Taliban will resort to asymmetrical strikes in the short term.

Clarion: One of the circulating arguments is that we should stop treating terrorists like they’re evil geniuses. Given that you’re seeing the Taliban strategically amplify attacks possibly as a means to navigate peace, what do you make of their ability as opponents?

Anon: The Taliban is not a monolith. There are factions within both the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) and these divisions can be exploited.  

  • In Afghanistan, Mawlawi Abdul Rauf, who is a key Afghan Taliban leader faces resistance from more hard-line members of the Afghan Taliban as he is negotiating with Afghan government representatives in Turkey. Rauf is open to the possibility of leaving NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan if a permanent peace is reached — a position that is firmly rejected by more hardline members of the Afghan Taliban including Zabihullah Mujahid.
  • In Pakistan, Mullah Fazalullah, head of the TTP, was killed by a U.S. drone strike earlier this month and there will be a leadership fight and possible splintering within the TTP.
  • At the tactical level, the Ghazni attack showed that when the Taliban amass to conduct large-scale attacks they suffer catastrophic losses.  When they use conventional tactics they fail. But while Taliban senior leaders are being captured or killed at a faster rate than they can reconstitute, the Taliban is able to recruit fighters faster than ANSF and coalition forces can kill them.  We cannot kill our way to victory.

Clarion: So the Taliban can’t fill out their leadership structures as quickly, but their numbers aren’t impacted by casualties on their end. What’s your assessment of the Afghan National Army?

Anon:  My experience is dated. From conversations I’ve had with people in my community that are currently deployed, the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are not capable of providing security without a high degree of NATO support.  

Only 35% (approximately) of Afghan males can read. Many that enlist in the ANA have little interest in military service and no sense of national identity. There is not a common thread of community, identity and purpose to form the bonds of a warrior brotherhood. Add to this, poor leadership from the senior officer corps and widespread corruption within the Afghan ministry of defense. The extent to which the Taliban or Taliban sympathizers are serving in ANSF is not clear. This is a culture where a person who was your enemy yesterday may be your friend today and your enemy tomorrow. Loyalty is fluid including loyalty to country.

But the junior officer leadership in the ANA gives me hope. There is a generational glide path needed to build capable, competent leaders.  The generation of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO’s) — someone who holds a rank between sergeant and sergeant-major who manages and leads the enlisted force) — and officers at the platoon and company level is better that it was 10 years ago from what I’ve been told. The next generation will be better still if we maintain our commitment. Think of the (commissioned) officers as white collar leadership and NCO as the blue collar leadership.

The commando battalions (kandaks) within the ANA don’t suffer from same problems as their conventional counterparts and have proven themselves to be capable, competent and reliable. They constitute a core of professional soldiers that Afghanistan can build from. Finally, the formation of a kandak (battalion-sized) special mission unit, the Ktah Khas, provides a small elite force capable of operating in support of (or alongside) U.S. tier-one special mission units.

Clarion: There’s been mixed coverage on how President Trump plans to address Afghanistan, with most recent reports saying he’s considering pulling out.  

Anon:  It’s important to separate the noise from the signal. I’m concerned that President Trump cannot articulate a clear and consistent Afghanistan policy, but I have confidence in Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo.  

Mattis and Pompeo understand that there isn’t a viable short-term solution to a long-term (generational) conflict.  This is an unconventional war, and the determining factor is time. Time not measured in years or decades. Time measured in generations.

There seems to be transactional mentality with regards to foreign policy, not just in Afghanistan but across the entire spectrum of U.S. foreign relations. What is needed is a 50-year Afghanistan policy that moves all parties from war to a viable lasting peace. A policy that is flexible and accounts for future Chinese economic development in both Afghanistan and the region, and that puts conditions in place to set a glide path to a secure, politically stable Afghanistan. The goal is to move from occupation to persistent engagement. A viable Afghan policy must be nested in an equally consistent regional policy.

If we look at actions (as opposed to words), the Trump administration’s strategy appears to be to provide the minimal amount of military support to keep Ghani’s government from collapsing while pursuing a negotiated peace with the Taliban.    

The Taliban does not operate in a vacuum. We have to counter Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban, and we have to engage with Russia, given that the Russian government is providing arms and assistance to the Taliban.

The U.S. must also account for a rising and very powerful ally to the established Afghan government: China. China has a national interest in this conflict as it shares a narrow border with Afghanistan in the Wakhan Corridor, which links Afghanistan’s Badakhstan province with the Chinese Muslim region of Xinjiang. China recognizes that as the “One Belt, One Road” project moves forward there must be some measure of security and political stability in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On a tangential note, Trump should consider visiting Afghanistan to meet with President Ghani and senior military leaders and to visit the troops. Trump has yet to visit the troops in any of the many combat zones in Asia and Africa, and this would be a much stronger statement than a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Clarion: Two of the interviewees for this series on Afghanistan pointed out the disruptive presence of Pakistan in Afghanistan. What is your opinion of that claim?

The TTP (the Pakistani Taliban) is not a monolith and neither is the Pakistani government.  There are factions in the Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that are actively supporting the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network and the TTP.  The primary concern within the Pakistani military and intelligence communities is that a politically-stable Afghanistan could become an ally of India. An additional concern is that Afghanistan could provide a safe haven to Pakistani separatist groups in the same way that Pakistan provides a safe haven to the Taliban.  

We must remember that Bin Laden lived safely in Pakistan for five years.  That was not possible without the support of (elements within) the government of Pakistan.

Clarion: What else is happening under the surface?

Anon:  Eric Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater (since rebranded as Academi) lobbied the Trump administration to privatize the war in Afghanistan in August of 2017. Secretary of Defense Mattis and the national security adviser at the time, H.R. McMaster rejected his proposal. Prince is once again pushing this plan in which a special envoy to Afghanistan would be appointed and that envoy would command 6,000 private military contractors, 2,000 U.S. Special Forces soldiers and a combination of military and private aviation assets. The envoy would not report to the Department of Defense .

A private military company not subject to a Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and not accountable to the DoD or Congress, involved in exploiting the mineral wealth of Afghanistan for profit.  What could go wrong? The history of Blackwater and Eric Prince in Iraq is a negative example and should be remembered but not repeated.

Clarion: We call them PMCs now. We used to call them mercenaries. Mercenaries bring enormous ethical concerns over regulation, oversight and accountability.

Anon: Prince’s private military company, Academi, would essentially be a vendor, making a profit from the use of U.S. military assets and executing an agenda that is not in the best interest of either the United States or Afghanistan.

For some having an exit path from America’s longest war is the only goal regardless of the cost and consequences, but a mercenary company (in which profit is the primary goal) would not be interested in a lasting peace. To the contrary, they would they have more to gain from indefinite conflict.

Putting Eric Prince and his PMC in Afghanistan would be like giving the Taliban a 20-year supply of performance-enhancing drugs. It would spike an increase in funding and recruiting for jihadist movements that would make the world a much more dangerous place

Clarion: Speaking of foreign forces, in my conversation with Jason Howk for this series, he mentioned the Taliban were seen as an oppressive foreign force

Anon: Afghan society is multi-ethnic and predominantly tribal in the rural areas.  The Taliban are Pashtun and they are both Afghan and Pakistani. But if you are Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek or any of of dozen other ethnicities, then they are foreign. Not everyone is Afghanistan speaks Pashto, and not everyone in Afghanistan is Sunni. There will always be an organic resistance movement when one group imposes its religion, language and political will on the the country as a whole.  The northern alliance under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud is an example of this. Afghans don’t have a strong sense of national identity; their cultural identities are ethnic and tribal.

Clarion: What does defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan look like? How that does that impact American foreign politics, the war on terror and our safety and stability as as nation?

Anon:  I think we should broaden the question and ask, “What does success look like?” In the near term, death rates within ANSF should decline, as they have with coalition forces. While every death is a tragedy, in 2010, 496 American service members were killed in action in Afghanistan. In 2017, 17 Americans were killed in action. Again, death is not a metric; it is a tragedy. But the security climate in Afghanistan is improving. Gauging improvement is like watching concrete harden. It is maddeningly slow.

In the long term, we need to de-incentivize Russia, Pakistan and non-government Gulf State actors from supporting the Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS-K. The Taliban is a viable force only because Pakistan supports them and grants them safe haven.

But providing a measure of security and political stability is not enough. The potential for economic development stemming from China’s One Belt, One Road project cannot be overstated. Interdependent economic ties between Pakistan, Afghanistan and other south Asian countries can drive peace when coupled with stable governance.

In summary I will say this:

I spent 20 years in U.S. Army Special Forces and five years in Joint Special Operations organizations. In my opinion, there are four cornerstones to consider regarding a successful Afghanistan policy.

  1. Afghanistan is a layer cake of unconventional war. It combines centuries-old ethnic and tribal rivalries nested in a modern religious conflict.
  2. Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan war must be countered.  A forward thinking Afghanistan policy must be nested in an equally forward- thinking regional policy. We must have a proactive (not reactive) approach to navigate the intentions and involvement of Pakistan, Russia,Iran, China and non-state Arab Gulf actors, all of whom have an agenda.
  3. As in any unconventional war, the determinative factor is time. While control of territory may ebb and flow from the Taliban to government forces, building and maintaining the support of the Afghan populace across ethnic and tribal lines is the key to success.
  4. There is no such thing as victory in Afghanistan.  There is success and there is failure. The side that will succeed is the side that remains the most committed over time. Time not measured in years or decades, time measured in generations.



Read the other parts of our series on Afghanistan:

Part 1: Will America Join the Graveyard of Empires?

Part 2: Can Peace Be Made with Taliban Butchers?

Part 3: Cultural Darwinism of the Afghan War


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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.