Afghan National Army recruits under a NATO contingent in Kabul, 2010. (Photo by G. A. Volb)
story by Casey Afghanistan
September 19, 2013
Following a lull in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Taliban-led insurgency stepped up attacks across Afghanistan throughout August. There have been a few notable ambushes of Afghan security forces—in Nangarhar 22 police were killed in early August and in Farah another 15 were killed on August 29th. Yet, post Ramadan attacks mostly conform to the suicide and roadside bombs and occasional one-off complex attacks that we’ve come to expect of this conflict. The significant, and mostly un-reported, exception is the district of Sangin in southern Helmand Province.
At a brightly lit Kebab shop on the edge of Kabul’s Shar-e Naw Park I sat down with a friend and former colleague who has been researching and writing on southern Afghanistan for a decade shortly after he returned from a week-long Eid visit with family in Taliban-controlled areas of several northern Helmand districts, including Sangin. What he described was at once heartening and dispiriting—a national army holding its own, but a government with no coherent political plan and a population that saw continued conflict as inevitable.
Throughout Ramadan, and even into the Eid holiday, the Taliban and Afghan National Army (ANA) were engaged in drawn out fire-fights from fixed positions across the Helmand River in an area of Sangin known as Sarwan Qala. British and US forces which have fought in this opium trafficking (and heroin processing) hub intermittently since 2005 are all but gone, and with them the attention of the international media.
What remains is an ANA which has developed an ad hoc, but effective, working relationship with the communal militias known as Afghan Local Police (ALP) and, to the surprise of both the internationals that mentor them and the Taliban who fight them, are refusing to buckle. If they are not necessarily gaining ground along the upper Helmand River, they are not losing it either.
The Taliban have responded by sending fighters from across Helmand to Sarwan Qala. “Right now there are about 26 different Taliban fronts from around Helmand which are in Sangin. Usually each front, which is six to ten guys, fights for seven days before rotating out. Where I was, there were usually about 50 fighters on the front line,” my friend explained.
In this case the front line was the Helmand River. The Taliban were dug into abandoned houses on the northern side while the ANA were in a forward operating base to the south. Sometimes the fire fights across the river would last for 20 hours at a stretch.
The fact that there is a front line at all represents a drastic shift in this very asymmetric war. In Sangin this is a shift that plays into the strengths of the conventional ANA forces. “The Taliban are really impressed with the way the ANA is fighting,” my friend said. “The feeling is that the ANA could take back some of the area that was lost when two or three ALP posts were captured before Ramadan. The Taliban I talked to would rather fight anybody—including the internationals—than the ANA.”
The ANA’s ability to maintain government control in Helmand is not so much a factor of its soldiers’ willingness or ability to fight, but of the supply chain. What those close to the fighting here understand is that once the ANA is no longer able to get fuel for their up armored Humvees, for instance, their advantage will be lost.
On the Taliban side, most of the fighters have basic motives and local roots.. Most of the fighters in Sarwan Qala are farmers from throughout the province who are fighting because “our country was invaded and Jihad is a duty.” In conversations with several fighters, my friend found that they were mostly without an opinion on the types of issues—upcoming elections, peace negotiations—that are consuming the international civilian-military effort.
“I think that even if there was a peace deal with the Taliban leadership tomorrow, the district level fighters may not follow along, mostly because there is this huge gap between the provincial level insurgents and the guys fighting in the districts.” he said. “And the guys fighting in the districts are pretty clueless—they have a limited understanding of anything that is going on outside their areas.”
Which is not to say that rural areas like Sangin are altogether clueless. On the contrary, my friend found the elders here to be politically informed and inclined to think in longer terms. The consensus was that the war would continue, but that it would change; that the Taliban would not simply “win” or return to power, even here in their heartland, anytime soon. In general there was a lot of uncertainty but also more room than in the past to open up dialogue; not with the mostly clueless local Taliban, but with their fathers’ and uncles’.
“More than any other time in the past few years it is time for the government to approach the elders to convince them to bring their influence over the Taliban in their districts,” my friend said. “I think the elders would be more open to listening to the government than they have been in years. But the government isn’t doing the outreach.”
In 2010 as the US was pouring thousands of troops into Helmand and Kandahar, ISAF and the various civilian missions in the south were already reframing the battle in political terms. As early as 2011 the narrow military objectives of the “surge” had, by many estimates, been met—Taliban gains were reversed, critical population centers were back under government control—but the political issues—particular as regards local level power-sharing—remained unresolved.
Not much has changed today, the biggest unknown is not whether the Afghan National Army can hold out in a 20-hour fire fight with four dozen Taliban, but will the government be able to open up a meaningful dialogue, and make concrete overtures for political inclusion, to the leaders of communities who appear to be otherwise content to play the long game and allow their sons and nephews to continue to fire across the Helmand River.
Fewer & fewer Americans in Afghanistan…
Story courtesy of Fractured Atlas: