Afghan resistance to the Taliban needs U.S. support — and a big morale boost

Opinion by Ronald E. Neumann

Afghan army soldiers unload a helicopter in Helmand province in March. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

Reeling from Taliban victories and the United States’ withdrawal, Afghanistan is in danger of losing the gains in women’s rights, a free press and democratic norms it has achieved over the past 20 years. But on a recent trip to the country, in meetings with government, opposition and military figures, I found a more complex picture — and some positive signals.

First, the bad: The Taliban has overrun many districts, cutting roads and isolating garrisons and checkpoints. Taliban forces have surprised foreign and Afghan militaries by shifting from the south and east — historically the areas of heaviest fighting — and attacking one of the weaker Afghan army corps in the north. Many smaller posts, which U.S. commanders warned for years were unsustainable, surrendered or overrun.

Extensive recent Afghan command changes may have contributed to the problems — as, no doubt, did some measure of corruption and padding of enlistment rolls. But the United States holds some responsibility for the larger problem, as well.

Afghan garrisons are isolated, yet the United States has withdrawn aerial resupply resources. It also withdrew the foreign contractors on whom the Afghans depended to run its supply system, and those who maintained Afghan fighters and helicopters. Given Afghans’ limited airlift capabilities, soldiers now wonder, if they fight, whether they’ll be resupplied or evacuated. As one senior Afghan official told me, “We can defend many places which we cannot sustain.”

Yet there is reason to hope. The popular impression — that only Afghan commandos are fighting, while the Afghan army is passive — is exaggerated. The regular army in Helmand province is fighting hard and remains intact around the provincial capital despite being hard-pressed. One Afghan friend told me of his cousin’s fighting in the army in distant Nimruz province. After three days of combat, a Taliban attack was repulsed, and the army, aided by local fighters, has now taken back one district.

Such stories don’t prove the army is solid. But they do show that the assumption everything has already failed is exaggerated.

Perhaps the most positive sign is the popular resistance against the Taliban. In some areas, the opposition is led by old warlords. But in many places, the uprising is organized by local communities. I heard detailed accounts of strong fighting in many locations — serious enough that the Taliban is already threatening dire punishment for resistance fighters.

That said, while there are some instances of the resistance working with local military and police leaders, the popular uprising generally lacks central leadership or organization. It is lightly armed and, unless supported, could be overwhelmed by concentrated Taliban attacks.

As President Biden has asserted, the Afghan government bears the major responsibility. It must support and lead the resistance, set a clearer strategy and explain that strategy to its people. President Ashraf Ghani told me he has such a strategy. He must now make its major elements public.

Our decision to withdraw, without explanation, much earlier than Biden’s Sept. 11 deadline came as a shock. The necessary but noisy focus on visas for Afghan interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government leads Afghans to wonder if we’ve given up on their country’s ability to resist the Taliban. And the repeated idea that the outcome is wholly up to Afghans makes them wonder if we’re already washing our hands of responsibility.

We say we’ll continue to support Afghan security forces. Afghans doubt we mean it.

In addition, the supportive actions we are taking, such as providing additional aircraft, have been drowned out by mixed messaging, our words devalued.

The Taliban has held off on assaulting major cities. But observers expect these attacks to start soon. We urgently need to find symbolic actions that cut through the mixed messaging and make clear that our support remains real.

One possible action would be rapid resupply of food and ammunition by air to major cities at the end of difficult resupply lines. We could identify equipment and funding needs for the resistance forces and make emergency transfers. We can do some airstrikes from aircraft based outside Afghanistan. And there may be better ideas.

The point is that action needs to be big, visible and meaningful. Afghans must stem the slide or lose the war. And the United States must do all it can to dispel the doubts that could lead to collapse. The window for action is closing rapidly. We need to move now.

Afghan resistance to the Taliban needs U.S. support — and a big morale boost