Voices on Afghanistan: How will the Nato troop withdrawal impact security?
What happens when Nato troops leave Afghanistan? The International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, Graeme Smith, describes what to expect. He just spent six months travelling through the country and is preparing a new report on security. Mr Smith is also the author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter: @smithkabul
I spent about half a year travelling to some of the areas where the insurgency has been really active in Afghanistan in different corners of the country and looking at the effect of troops withdrawals.
I wanted a peek into what happens when you pull out foreign troops.
It’s quite a seismic shift that’s underway. At the peak we had a 130,000 International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) personnel on the ground. And that number is shrinking rapidly.
About 40,000 today. It could get down to 20,000 later this year. And, depending on how the negotiations go for a bilateral security agreement, we could get down to zero by the end of the year. Or some modest number could stay behind.
Either way it’s a dramatic change in the military landscape. I wanted to peek over the parapets and see what the effect is.
And sadly the answer is that the ground held by the Afghan government is shrinking modestly and violence is up. Not only is violence up but the military balance between the Taliban and the Afghan government is precarious.
It’s a hard-fought battle. I worry that if we don’t give enough support to the Afghan government it could tip in favour of the Taliban.
Today, there are roughly almost as many causalities on the Afghan government side as on the Taliban side. Now, as a component of that number, the Taliban are dying a lot more. They have trouble evacuating their causalities from the battlefield versus a lot more injuries on the Afghan government side.
The fact that those numbers are so close gives you an illustration of how tough it is out there.
The Afghan government needs helicopters. The US Congress in November decided to cut off the supply of helicopters that they were buying. And I think that’s silly, to be honest. You can’t just cut off the supply of helicopters to the fledgling Afghan air force and say, ‘Good luck.’
I went to Faryab province in the north-west, which is hundreds of kilometres away from the Taliban heartlands of the south and east and yet still has a growing problem with the insurgency.
There are Taliban there. All foreign troops have been out since September 2012. So it’s an interesting case study. It’s a look at what happens when you have absolutely zero foreign intervention.
And the short answer is violence is up significantly and the government is losing ground.
I also looked at Kunar in the east. Kunar was one of the most famous battlegrounds for US forces. At point, one valley of one district of the province, the Korengal Valley, accounted for about one-fifth of all air strikes in the whole country. And today the Korengal is quiet. Today, that district, Pech, is quiet. Violence is down considerably in those areas. Because the foreigners have departed and the Taliban have quietly taken over or other insurgent groups have quietly taken over areas that Afghan forces just decided not to patrol.
But unfortunately, in the province as a whole, violence remains exceptionally high. There’s been no quieting down of the whole province because the violence has just moved to different areas.
I also went to Kandahar. Kandahar is an interesting metaphor for the country as a whole because the centre is holding. Violence is actually down for the first time in ages in urban areas, in the downtown parts of Kandahar city, where it’s safer to walk around.
There’s been a huge influx of Afghan forces and they’ve done a good job of simply locking the place down. You walk around Kandahar city and you see Afghan forces sitting on the street corners, every single street corner.
But if you go out into the districts, it’s a different story.
They are more violent than they were. Violence continues to rise in Kandahar as a whole.
The last place I went to was Paktia, in the south-east. Paktia was a bright spot on the map. It was the only good news story that I found.
And it’s hard to understand why it’s emerged as a good news story actually. As the foreigners left the violence decreased dramatically. Violence today is a third of what it was a couple of years ago. Lots of people in Paktia simply say when the foreigners left the Taliban didn’t have a reason to fight any more. Because there were no more invading infidels and so the justification for war evaporated.
I would say to them that’s the case in all these other places I visited, where things are worse.
So what is it about this area?
The usual explanation is that the tribal structure is very clear and strong in Paktia.
Different tribes control different districts.
They have support from the Afghan government but the centre of gravity is with the tribes. And they have a long tradition of guarding their own territory. There’s that sense of independence there that maybe isn’t there in some of the other places.
In some ways what we are dealing with is hundreds of little different insurgencies across the country. All being fought simultaneously. But I think it’s important to realise that most of the people who are fighting, whether they are for the government or against the government, most of them have a vision for Afghanistan.
There are nationalists on both sides.
The threat that many people saw of Afghan forces simply giving up or giving up their weapons and going home or cutting quiet deals with the Taliban, happened in only a few places. If you look at the country as a whole the Afghan security forces are still fighting. The number of young men who are willing to sign up to protect the Afghan government and die fighting the Taliban is still really high. It’s going to be a fight.
The Taliban cannot just walk back into Kabul.