by Najim Rahim & Mujib Mashal
New York Times
July 28, 2016
KUNDUZ CITY, Afghanistan — When President Ashraf Ghani visited the northern provincial capital of Kunduz last fall, after the city had finally been reclaimed after falling to the Taliban, he promised improvements to make sure things never got out of hand again.
Among the changes was creating three new administrative districts to help improve government support in the province. But nearly eight months later, those three districts are firmly under the control of the Taliban — and, in fact, government forces were never able to clear them and install the new officials. It is the same story in much of the rest of Kunduz Province, where the Taliban control or have mined many roads and have enforced their ban on smoking and listening to music in several areas.
Even in some of the Kunduz districts nominally under government control, officials’ true reach remains limited to the bazaars and the administrative buildings, with the Taliban having free movement in the villages, according to local residents. And last week, the government all but lost control of another district in the province, Qala-i-Zal.
“The district administrative building is neither with us nor with the Taliban,” the provincial police chief, Gen. Qasim Jangalbagh, said in an interview in Kunduz on Wednesday. “We have planted mines, and they have planted mines. So, it’s back and forth like that.”
The situation in the northern province speaks to a broader struggle this year for the Afghan security forces, with months of the Taliban’s offensive still ahead. Although the Afghan forces have so far done better in defending territory this year after a disastrous 2015, they have seemed unable to turn back the insurgents’ gains.
Even the expansion of American powers to conduct airstrikes has not eased the concerns of local officials in a year in which both civilian casualties and Afghan security force losses are on pace for record highs.
Abdul Karim Khadimzai, the head of the provincial council in Uruzgan, expressed concern that the security situation was spiraling out of control.
“Most of the districts are cut off by the Taliban and only the district centers are nominally controlled by the government,” Mr. Khadimzai said.
“There is nothing to eat and wear, our men are staying in the trenches for 14 months, and they are homesick and have not got a single day off to take rest or be out of danger,” said Anar Gul, a local police commander in Khas Uruzgan. “We are just counting days and night in this hardship, and any moment we are expecting death.”
In Helmand, officials said the government has been unable to regain the territories lost last year, although airstrikes have so far prevented further Taliban advances. The Babaji suburb of the provincial capital and many of the province’s northern districts remain controlled or contested by the Taliban.
“As of May, our assessment was that approximately nine districts were under insurgent control and about 27 districts were under some level of insurgent influence,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, a spokesman for United States forces in Afghanistan.
Sediq Sediqqi, an Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman, said government forces did not have control over nine districts and faced threats in 40-45 other districts that they were working to repel.
Privately officials worry that the Taliban threat remains at least as high as it was last year.
The Taliban made another push around Kunduz City this spring. While officials said changes in the chain of command and improved discipline had helped fend off the offensive, they were quick to note that American airstrikes have been the most critical factor.
Just weeks before slowing down the withdrawel of the remaining American troops in Afghanistan, President Obama gave his commander here broader powers to use force — essentially drawing American forces deeper into a war in which the Taliban are not the government’s only enemy.
On Wednesday, the United States military announced for the first time that American troops had been wounded in combat with fighters for the Islamic State offshoot in eastern Afghanistan: Five soldiers were reported to have taken “nonlife-threatening” injuries during an offensive against the group in Nangarhar.
Mostly, though, the broader authority for American commanders has been a freer hand in using airstrikes to help the Afghan forces.
“As a commander, and working closely with my Afghan comrades every day, this is a big difference — it enables them to retain the initiative against the enemy,” Gen. John W. Nicholson, the commander of American and NATO forces, said in a recent briefing. “Whereas before we were preventing defeat, now we are able to help them gain and retain the initiative.”
One senior Western official in Kabul, however, said the loosening airstrike restrictions came out of a realization that losing more territory, particularly cities and district centers, could further destabilize the country as the fragile Afghan government is struggling to manage political and factional tensions.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private briefings, said that more intense airstrikes were crucial to trying to achieve some sort of stalemate with the Taliban that could eventually increase their interest in negotiating.
But in Kunduz right now, officials describe a situation in which district centers remain under government control, but the Taliban are just around the corner.
The main road from Gul Tepa, one of the areas Mr. Ghani declared a new district in November, to Kunduz City is cut off by Taliban mines, residents said. A trip to the city that once took 15 minutes, now rerouted, takes an hour. The road closures have also affected the region’s main agricultural produce: melons and watermelons.
“In Gul Tepa, it’s all Taliban — they treat us well, but they make every home serve them food every 10 days or so, and they have told people not to smoke cigarettes and hashish or listen to music,” said Zabihullah, a shopkeeper in the district who goes by one name. “Since the government said this place will be a new district, we haven’t seen the government carrying out an operation to come and help our pain.”
Taimoor Shah & Mohammad Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kandahar & Kabul, Afghanistan
Copyright New York Times 2016