Why Afghanistan’s government is losing the war with the Taliban

Why Afghanistan’s government is losing the war with the Taliban

The Economist

Print edition

May 16th 2019|


Sitting on a dusty rug beside their lorries at the edge of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, a group of middle-aged drivers explain the difference between the Taliban and the government. Both groups take money from drivers on the road, says Muhammad Akram, leaning forward in a black kurta; both are violent. But when the Taliban stop him at a checkpoint, they write him a receipt. Waving a fistful of green papers, he explains how they ensure he won’t be charged twice: after he pays one group of Talibs, his receipt gets him through subsequent stops. Government soldiers, in contrast, rob him over and over. When he drives from Herat, a city near the Iranian border, to Kandahar, Mr Akram says, he will pay the Taliban once. Government soldiers he will pay at least 30 times.

Afghanistan has been mired in conflict for some 40 years. It has been almost 18 years since America and other nato members invaded to kick out the Taliban in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The two sides have been negotiating directly since October over an American withdrawal in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban not to harbour terrorists. The latest round of talks, in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain an embassy of sorts, concluded on May 9th, with what the militants described as “some progress”.

As the two sides haggle, the war has intensified. Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians, according to the United Nations. America’s air force dropped more bombs in 2018 than at any other point in the war. Despite that support, the government is slowly losing ground. It now controls barely half the country’s territory, albeit two-thirds of its people. The Taliban regularly overrun police and army outposts, and occasionally whole cities. Nowhere is completely safe. At illicitly boozy parties in Kabul, the capital, rich Afghans make dark jokes about the impending arrival of the jihadists at their gates.

Cops are robbers

That the Taliban are winning is in part the result of the complaints of people like Mr Akram, the truck-driver. Some 18 years after its creation, the Western-backed government in Kabul remains incapable of providing basic services. It has a huge security apparatus, a big bureaucracy and plenty of smart-suited, American-accented technocrats. But where it matters, the state is, in the words of the American Department of Justice, “largely lawless, weak and dysfunctional”. There are schools and clinics in some places, but teachers are not always paid and seldom turn up to work. Other public services are non-existent. The most visible branch of the government is the police, which does much of the thieving itself.

The difficulty of building a functioning state is clear in Kandahar. It is, along with the neighbouring province, Helmand, the country’s breadbasket and was the centre of the precursor to modern Afghanistan, the Durrani empire of the 18th century. Whereas most of the country is mountainous and rugged, here irrigation canals feed a patchwork of small farms. Most of the population are Pushtun, Afghanistan’s dominant ethnicity. Kandahar province is where the Taliban movement was born in the 1990s. It was also where the Taliban regrouped and began fighting nato’s occupation. As Hayatullah Hayat, the provincial governor, says, “If Kandahar is safe, Afghanistan is safe.”

Today, Kandahar is far from safe. On the road towards Helmand, in Zhari district, a local police sergeant who goes by only one name, Shamsullah, explains that his job is “to kill Taliban”. Surrounded by guns, he says that things have calmed down since he and his team of 80 cops arrived. But the Taliban are in control just a few kilometres away. The last attack was just eight days ago, on one of the police checkpoints on the road. The Taliban also plant roadside bombs. Shamsullah insists he is capable of fighting them—he has been doing it for years. But he also says that they are often better equipped than his own troops, for example with night-vision goggles.

The Taliban control only rural areas at the edge of the province. But their influence is far more widespread. When asked who the Taliban are, Shamsullah says that they are Pakistanis who employ “uneducated” locals with Gulf cash. That is not wholly wrong, but it is not the whole story. The Taliban also raise money themselves rather effectively, and not just from roadside extortion. In the village outside the police post, children play in fields of tall white and pink opium poppies. Faiz Mohammed, a farmer, says he sells his crop to men who come on motorbikes and take it to factories up the road in Taliban territory. They pay him in Pakistani rupees.

The Taliban are certainly not the only drug dealers; plenty of people on the government side are involved in the trade too. But they are efficient operators. Not only do they run many of the factories and smuggling routes, they also manage farming. Taliban troops expect poppy-farmers to pay taxes on their crop, but they also provide seed capital and other support. In many areas, they help to police water use, managing disputes and limiting the over-exploitation of groundwater. Over the past few years the size of the opium crop has grown remarkably—especially in Taliban-controlled areas (see article).

And in their fight against the government the Taliban find it easy to win support, because they attack institutions that are deeply unpopular. A few miles on the other side of Kandahar city, in Panjwai district, Faizal Muhammad Ishakzai, the district governor, says he is worried that fighting could start again soon. “The Afghan army keeps asking people for money,” he explains, “They mistreat us.” In particular, he argues, the Noorzai clan are exploited. Two influential Noorzai men were recently killed by police, he says, passing a phone with pictures of the bodies: “That creates anger.” In Kandahar, the security services are dominated by Achakzai, the clan of the provincial police commander, Tadeen Khan. Mr Khan was made commander after the assassination of his brother, General Abdul Raziq Achakzai, a famous anti-Taliban fighter who turned Kandahar into his own personal fief.

That is where local problems connect to national ones. Afghanistan, despite its enormous diversity, has one of the most centralised systems of government in the world. The provincial commander, together with at least 3,000 other officials, is directly appointed by and answerable to the president, Ashraf Ghani. Most are chosen in Kabul on the basis of personal relations. When they use their power to settle scores or build empires, there are few ways for people to express their dissatisfaction. If petitioning appointed leaders does not work, siding with the Taliban is one of the few means of protest they have left.

The Taliban are no more accountable than the government, stresses Ashley Jackson, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank in London. Their attacks on civilians make them deeply unpopular, especially in cities. But in rural areas they are seen as efficient, at least, and willing to challenge arbitrary government power. For example, according to one un study, land disputes may account for 70% of violent crimes. In government-controlled areas, well-connected figures often grab land with impunity. The Taliban, in contrast, have judges who deal with such cases brutally, but much less corruptly.

Kabul rules

Mr Ghani, the president, a former academic (and a former American citizen), has plenty of ideas about how to fix failed states; indeed, he wrote a book on the topic. In Kabul, diplomats rave about the work he has done introducing systems designed to reduce graft, such as using blind tests to recruit teachers. Tax revenues have gone up from around 8.5% of gdp to 11%, thanks to greater efficiency at border posts.

But because people close to the president seem immune, Mr Ghani’s anti-corruption drive is seen by some as a power grab, with an ethnic tinge. “There have been some genuine efforts,” says one high-up official in Kabul. “But in terms of legitimacy, the president has created division. People say this administration is only from three provinces.”

America’s negotiations with the Taliban reflect President Donald Trump’s insistence on reducing money spent and lives lost in Afghanistan before next year’s election. On April 2nd Mr Trump said America’s presence in the country was “ridiculous” and should be brought to an end. But Mr Ghani views the negotiations as a betrayal. In Washington in March, his national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, said America was giving legitimacy to the Taliban by talking to them.

The government’s misgivings are far from absurd. America and the Taliban seem to be groping towards a deal in which America would withdraw most of its troops, bar a small force to hunt for terrorists, while the Taliban would call a ceasefire. The implications for the government, its army and its American-inspired constitution are unclear. Mr Ghani seems to assume that America will not actually let him fall. But Mr Trump may not care that much who runs the country. At the truck stop in Kandahar, the drivers certainly don’t—as long as they can work unthreatened by men with guns.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “State departure”

Correspondent’s diary

Afghanistan beyond the blast walls

Our writer discovers how foreigners rarely see the country they are trying to rebuild

WAR-ZONES ARE often more ordinary than you expect. So it was recently when I made my first trip to Afghanistan. As we pulled out of Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul and onto the highway my taxi driver turned to me and said that “the worst thing” about life in Afghanistan is the traffic. What about the war, I asked? Oh, yes, sure, sometimes bombs go off, he replied. And the security everywhere is a pain (we had just driven through about half a mile of checkpoints and blast walls). But bombs rarely inconvenience, whereas traffic, that happens every day.

From abroad, it is easy to imagine Afghanistan to be everywhere as we see it on the evening news: soldiers clambering aboard helicopters; men in turbans clutching rifles; women in baby-blue burqas sheltering behind bombed out walls. You can find all of those things, certainly. But they are not what you are most likely to see. Kabul most of the time feels like what it is: another poor, traffic-choked South Asian city. Traffic is not Kabul’s only problem. The city, with a population that could be as high as 5m people now, is fringed by the mountains of the Hindu Kush, which trap the smoke from the fires people burn to keep warm in the winter, not to mention pollution from traffic and brick kilns near the city. When I arrived, it was still cold, the very tail end of winter, and the soot gets stuck in your lungs and your clothes, giving you the smell of someone who has been at a bonfire.

Although Afghanistan is home to one of the deadliest wars in the world, more people die from air pollution each year than do from the fighting—around 17,000 in 2016, according to the World Health Organisation, compared with around 3,500 civilian deaths from the war that year. Thankfully it is seasonal. As the weather changes, suddenly the air becomes clear again and Kabul becomes rather pleasant. Men on side streets grind sugar cane into juice. The city is given some glamour by wedding halls, lit up like casinos, where wealthier Kabulis get married. On Fridays, the day of rest, boys take over roads to play cricket in their kurtas and salwar kameez. Daily life in Afghanistan continues away from the buzzing helicopters.

Sadly, most of the foreigners who work in Afghanistan don’t get to see much of that side of the country, because they are not often allowed out of their diplomatic compounds except under heavy protection. The part of Afghanistan known to most visitors as the “green zone” is nothing like the rest of the city. Concrete blast walls four metres high, topped with barbed wire and surrounded with HESCO blocks—giant wire-framed sandbags—surround everything. There is very little traffic, and at every junction, soldiers man roadblocks and check cars for explosives. The American embassy compound is Ozymandian in its size; it occupies the entirety of what must have once been a city neighbourhood. Soon, it will have to find some tenants, as the American government is pulling out half of its staff.

The security is necessary, because both the Taliban and Islamic State like to drop rockets and send suicide bombers to this part of the city. Most of the staff of embassies can travel around the city only in armoured cars with armed guards. So I had the funny experience of interviewing people who, even though they knew far more than me about the details of Afghan politics, had seen less of the country. It cannot be good that decisions about policy are made by people who are scarcely allowed outside the blast walls. So much of the West’s failure to build a stable Afghanistan comes down to the reliance on a distorted vision of the country that exists only in compounds like this: a world in which the Taliban are a clearly defined group, for example, rather than a messy, ever-changing alliance. But what is the alternative? Earlier this month Taliban fighters bombed the offices of Counterpart International, an American NGO that works outside the green zone.

Foreigners hiding away hurts the economy, too. Not far from the diplomatic quarter in Kabul is Chicken Street, a delightful, pedestrianised corner of the city lined with shops selling carpets, antiques and leather goods. For a while its vendors made a good living from the crowds of foreigners based in Kabul. In one emporium, the owner had a complete selection of Victorian flintlock cavalry pistols for sale, the steel embossed with Queen Victoria’s crest. “All fake”, the seller informed me, enthusiastically, “but very good fake”, demonstrating the smooth action of the trigger. Nowadays there are very few customers for such trinkets. As the NATO military presence has wound down in Afghanistan, so too has the spending—and the opportunities for Afghans to get rich working as translators, drivers and suppliers.

Still, for all of the catastrophe of the war there are still some positive legacies. For the capital of such a poor country, Kabul has good roads and a surprisingly reliable electricity supply. There is a small but real middle class, and freedoms unimaginable in the 1990s when the Taliban were in charge. In cafes in western Kabul, you can find women in jeans flirting with their boyfriends over sickly-sweet desserts. Everyone has a mobile phone, from which to happily blast Hindi pop music. Even if the Taliban come back, which sadly now is an all too likely outcome, not all of this will be undone. The country has changed too much. Almost half of the population now were born after the American invasion. Four times more people live in Kabul than in the 1990s. Far more Afghans know of life beyond the traditional confines of the Pashtun village, the inspiration of the Taliban, to go back.

That is the optimistic thought, anyway. In the countryside around Kandahar I also visited schools where boys—and only boys—recite Quranic verses in classrooms where the walls were riddled with bullet holes. In the past, both the Taliban and Nato-backed forces had taken over the buildings to use as military outposts. Since then, no repairs had been done. Some girls do go to school, but not many. Parents ask why they should risk the shame of sending a girl to school when the education available is so pathetic anyway? Not all change is easy.


Why Afghanistan’s government is losing the war with the Taliban