As the US military prepares to massively scale back its presence in Afghanistan and other nations – notably the UK – do the same, we’re nearly at the point when we get to see which of the predictions about the country’s future will come true. The big worry has been that the withdrawal of ISAF combat troops will let the Taliban regain control. With the USA and UK pulling back from direct operations, the bulk of the alliance’s combat power will be gone and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will have to carry the load themselves for the first time. The key areas are the Taliban heartlands in Kandahar and Helmand, and the strategic objective of Kabul.
The Taliban are keen to show that despite the 13-year ISAF presence, they’re still a viable force, and over the last few weeks they’ve launched a series of attacks aimed at western organizations. Kabul has been a prominent target, especially aid workers. In the last few weeks a series of at least three attacks have targeted NGO staff in their guest houses, killing several, and many organizations have advised their staff to leave the country over the Christmas period. It’s likely this is an attempt by the insurgents to apply pressure to the upcoming aid conference in London, where Afghanistan’s new president will discuss future foreign assistance. The removal of foreign influence is a key Taliban strategy, and targeting workers is a potentially effective tactic; aid agencies can’t operate if their staff has been scared out of the country. The effect on ordinary Afghans would be horrific though, as without NGOs, much of the infrastructure would collapse in weeks. With 36 aid workers dead this year and 95 others wounded, the situation is deteriorating badly from the glory days of 2005-2010, when foreigner could socialize freely in Kabul restaurants. Now they’re increasingly restricted to guarded compounds and even those are far from immune.
Other attacks have struck directly at security forces. On November 27, within weeks of being handed over to the ANSF, the Bastion complex in Helmand was heavily attacked by the Taliban. The base is a lot smaller than it was, with the main British Army camp and the USMC’s Camp Leatherneck having been dismantled during the drawdown, but the Afghan National Army Camp Shorabak and airfield were infiltrated and as of early December, the ANA hadn’t managed to clear out the last pockets of terrorists. While Bastion was a powerful symbol of ISAF and the Taliban will have concentrated resources for a special effort against it, the fact that the ANSF can’t even secure its own bases is a troubling message to the international community.
The USA and its allies have put a lot of effort into building security in Afghanistan and the current ANSF is professionally trained and well equipped, although there are serious worries about the more locally-controlled police. However, the question is how well can they hold out against a determined insurgency. When the Soviets pulled out in 1989, they left behind an Afghan army that, by the standards of the time, was at least as powerful as the modern ANA, and it managed to hold out for several years. Today’s Taliban doesn’t have the level of popular support the anti-Soviet Mujahedeen did, so the ANSF probably has the capability. Now we need to see if their political leaders have the will and wisdom to use it.
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