The Washington Post Sunday

Afghans fear Tal­iban on­slaught as U.S. forces wane

- BY SU­SAN­NAH GE­ORGE Military · Terrorism · Politics · Asian Politics · Warfare and Conflicts · World Politics · Taliban · United States of America · Philadelphia Union · United States Armed Forces · Afghanistan · Christopher · United States Department of Defense · Pentagon · Mark Esper · Mike Pompeo · Doha · Middle East · NATO · Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken · Soviet Union · Arghandab · Kandahar International Airport · Kandahar · Miller · T. G. I. Friday's · Lashkargah

kan­da­har, afghanista­n — The Tal­iban’s at­tacks out­side this large pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal be­gan this month with lit­tle out of the or­di­nary: spo­radic small-arms fire on mil­i­tary out­posts. Quickly, though, the gun­fire mor­phed into a bar­rage of heavy ar­tillery that al­lowed thou­sands of Tal­iban fight­ers to pour into the district of

Arghandab.

Within a mat­ter of days, the district, which had been un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol for a decade, was in Tal­iban hands.

It was only af­ter a se­ries of punishing U.S. airstrikes that Afghan ground forces were able to re­take the ter­ri­tory, Afghan of­fi­cials said. U.S. air sup­port played a sim­i­larly crit­i­cal role last month in push­ing back the mil­i­tant group in Hel­mand prov­ince, where the Tal­iban came within yards of breach­ing the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal’s lim­its.

The bat­tles come as U.S. forces have be­gun to close Kan­da­har Air Field, ac­cord­ing to two Afghan of­fi­cials, as part of an ac­cel­er­ated draw­down of U.S. forces in the coun­try. Af­ter the re­cent weeks of in­tense fight­ing, many here fear the re­duced troop num­bers and base clo­sures could mean less U.S. sup­port for fu­ture bat­tles against an em­bold­ened Tal­iban.

The U.S. airstrikes were “the only rea­son the Tal­iban was pushed back,” said Lt. Col. Niaz Mah­mad Ma­ja­had, the na­tional po­lice com­man­der in Arghandab

whose forces fought the Tal­iban un­til the mil­i­tary ar­rived. “If it weren’t for the airstrikes, the Tal­iban would not have fallen.”

Over the next two months, the num­ber of U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel in Afghanista­n will be cut in half, from around 5,000 to 2,500, act­ing de­fense sec­re­tary Christo­pher C. Miller an­nounced from the Pen­tagon on Tues­day. That level will mark the low­est num­ber of U.S. troops on the ground in the con­flict since 2002.

It was a move Miller’s pre­de­ces­sor warned against in a clas­si­fied memo days be­fore he was fired. For­mer de­fense sec­re­tary Mark T. Esper cited on­go­ing vi­o­lence in Afghanista­n and ap­pre­hen­sion about un­der­cut­ting ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the Afghan gov­ern­ment and the Tal­iban among his con­cerns about a more rapid with­drawal.

On Satur­day, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo stopped in Doha dur­ing a Mid­dle East trip in an ef­fort to re­vive stalled talks be­tween the Tal­iban and the Afghan gov­ern­ment. Pom­peo re­it­er­ated pre­vi­ous U.S. state­ments, call­ing for “a sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence,” but no im­me­di­ate an­nounce­ments of progress fol­lowed.

A U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the is­sue, said a small num­ber of U.S. ser­vice mem­bers are at Kan­da­har Air Field as the draw­down con­tin­ues. Many of them are pre­par­ing equip­ment to be sent out of the coun­try as the Jan. 15 draw­down dead­line looms, he said.

The U.S. mil­i­tary com­mand in Afghanista­n did not com­ment on airstrikes against the Tal­iban in Hel­mand and Kan­da­har or on the sta­tus of Kan­da­har Air Field.

Kan­da­har Air Field, which Afghan of­fi­cials say pro­vided sup­port for the airstrikes last week, was once the largest NATO base in Afghanista­n, home to what U.S. troops called the “board­walk,” a col­lec­tion of stores, restau­rants and U.S. fast-food chains such as KFC and TGI Fri­days.

Gul Ahmad Kamin, 34, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment from Kan­da­har, said U.S. forces have been slowly clos­ing the air­field for months and were just one week away from shut­ter­ing the base when Tal­iban fight­ers at­tacked nearby Lashkar Gah, Hel­mand’s pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal. A se­nior Afghan of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the mat­ter con­firmed that U.S. forces have closed parts of the base.

An Afghan em­ployee of a pri­vate se­cu­rity com­pany lo­cated near U.S. com­pounds on the base said he no­ticed move­ment to close the base about a month and a half ago, when sev­eral large ship­ping con­tain­ers were handed over to the Afghan mil­i­tary, surveil­lance balloons were reeled in and de­flated, and U.S. troops be­gan sell­ing off their civil­ian ve­hi­cles to pri­vate con­trac­tors. He spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause his em­ployer did not au­tho­rize him to speak to the me­dia.

Through­out the weeks-long Tal­iban of­fen­sive in south­ern Afghanista­n, the mas­sive cargo planes con­tin­ued their runs to and from Kan­da­har Air Field, he said.

For Afghan gov­ern­ment forces sta­tioned in and around Kan­da­har, the pres­ence of U.S. troops is as much about sym­bol­ism as it is about the tech­ni­cal sup­port they can pro­vide, Kamin said.

“It’s all about morale,” he said. “When U.S. forces are in­creas­ing, the morale is higher. When they are de­creas­ing, the morale suf­fers.”

In many parts of Afghanista­n, as U.S. troops have drawn down, in­se­cu­rity and higher lev­els of vi­o­lence have fol­lowed. And although the pub­lic text of the U.S.-Tal­iban deal does not call for a re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence, U.S. of­fi­cials have said Tal­iban at­tacks on cities and towns un­der Afghan gov­ern­ment con­trol are “not con­sis­tent” with the agree­ment.

Ab­dul Nafi Pash­tun, com­man­der of Afghanista­n’s 04 para­mil­i­tary unit, said the Tal­iban’s as­sault on Arghandab is an­other breach of the deal.

“Their plan was to en­ter Kan­da­har city,” he said. Es­tab­lished pri­mar­ily to con­duct night raids and other small, tar­geted oper­a­tions, Pash­tun’s unit has been mar­shaled to fight on the front lines over the past seven months as Tal­iban at­tacks have in­ten­si­fied and reg­u­lar Afghan units with less U.S. sup­port have proved un­able to pro­tect ter­ri­tory un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol.

He and his com­man­dos were called in to sup­port other Afghan forces as they strug­gled to re­take Arghandab ear­lier this month. The district, con­sid­ered the gate­way to Kan­da­har city, sits on its northweste­rn edge along one of three main roads that con­nect the city to the rest of Afghanista­n.

Ma­ja­had, the na­tional po­lice com­man­der in Arghandab, said, shak­ing his head, that an es­ti­mated 3,500 Tal­iban fight­ers launched the first as­sault on his district and “had 500 mo­tor­bikes with them.”

In three decades of mil­i­tary ser­vice, he said, he never saw a Tal­iban as­sault of such mag­ni­tude. “There is no doubt they are stronger and more well equipped now,” he said. “And with this news [of faster U.S. troop with­drawals], the Tal­iban gets a great ad­van­tage.”

Fa­tima, a widow in her 60s from Arghandab who like many Afghans goes by a sin­gle name, fled to Kan­da­har city more than two weeks ago with three small chil­dren.

“There were bul­lets ev­ery­where,” she said. “This war is the worst I have seen since the Soviet time” in the 1980s.

Saki Jana fled with her fam­ily from Pan­jawai district west of Kan­da­har, where in­tense clashes with the Tal­iban are on­go­ing. She also said the num­ber of Tal­iban fight­ers was far greater in this at­tack than in pre­vi­ous as­saults.

“They were just ev­ery­where, on ev­ery street. They only ran to hide when you could hear a he­li­copter com­ing,” she said.

With­out the fear of U.S. air and drone strikes since the sign­ing of the Fe­bru­ary deal, the Tal­iban can more eas­ily move fight­ers and equip­ment around the coun­try, Ma­ja­had said. And the mil­i­tants can also gather openly in larger groups, as they did in the days and weeks lead­ing up to the of­fen­sives in Hel­mand and Kan­da­har.

“I don’t think we will ever be able to go back,” Fa­tima said. While Afghan gov­ern­ment forces have re­taken most of her district, she said she doesn’t trust that they won’t aban­don their posts the next time the Tal­iban launches an as­sault.

“The Amer­i­cans are leav­ing, the Tal­iban are in­creas­ing their at­tacks, and we are stuck in be­tween,” she said. “This coun­try is just be­ing de­stroyed.”

 ??  ??
 ?? PHOTOS BY SU­SAN­NAH GE­ORGE/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? A mem­ber of a bomb dis­posal unit pre­pares to move out to ter­ri­tory around Kan­da­har city re­cently re­taken from Tal­iban con­trol. Afghan forces are slowly tak­ing back ter­ri­tory af­ter mil­i­tant at­tacks.
PHOTOS BY SU­SAN­NAH GE­ORGE/THE WASH­ING­TON POST A mem­ber of a bomb dis­posal unit pre­pares to move out to ter­ri­tory around Kan­da­har city re­cently re­taken from Tal­iban con­trol. Afghan forces are slowly tak­ing back ter­ri­tory af­ter mil­i­tant at­tacks.
 ??  ?? Women who fled clashes wait out­side a gov­ern­ment of­fice in cen­tral Kan­da­har city hop­ing to col­lect aid for dis­placed civil­ians.
Women who fled clashes wait out­side a gov­ern­ment of­fice in cen­tral Kan­da­har city hop­ing to col­lect aid for dis­placed civil­ians.

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