KABUL—Even before President Trump’s drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan goes into effect, there are clear signs the national government is losing its grip.
Streets empty out at dusk on the edge of the capital, as security forces gird for a rising wave of hit-and-run assassinations. Taliban insurgents have stuck letters on shop fronts, warning that the Islamic Emirate, as the movement calls itself, will arrest or summarily execute kidnappers, looters and robbers.
“When U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will implement our law on the Afghan government, either by dialogue or by force,” said Azizi, a young Taliban fighter, who traveled from his home just outside the capital to give an interview. He gazed out of a third-floor apartment overlooking a middle-class neighborhood in Kabul bustling with students and modern coffee shops. “We will follow the same sharia system in Kabul as we do in the provinces.”
For years, Afghans have agonized over what happens after U.S.-led coalition troops pull out for good. They may find out soon.
The Pentagon this week announced plans to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan to about 2,500 before Inauguration Day, down from about 12,000 in February and far off the peak of some 100,000 a decade ago. President Trump issued the order days after firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan during his first term. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has committed to funding Afghan forces through 2024—there are currently around 7,500 non-U. S. troops here—but coalition partners are unlikely to keep personnel in the country after an American withdrawal.
Anxiety among Afghans has been on the rise since the Taliban in February struck a deal with the Trump administration for a phased withdrawal of all U.S. troops. In return, the militant group pledged to prevent al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan and to begin peace talks with the Afghan government. Those talks, which started in September, are currently stalled.
In a statement following the U.S. election, the Taliban said it expected President-elect Joe Biden to remain committed to the February deal and warned him against heeding “warmongering circles” in breaking with the agreement.
The February accord didn’t include a cease-fire, but U.S. officials say they reached an understanding with the Taliban that violence would reduce significantly.
Yet the insurgents have been pressing what they see as their advantage on the battlefield. During a lull in U.S. airstrikes, Taliban fighters have mounted a large-scale offensive in Helmand province, seized major highways and surrounded government bases. Since February, they have conducted more than 13,000 attacks nationwide—constituting the most violent period of the entire war, according to internal Afghan government assessments reviewed by The Wall Street Journal corroborated by Western security analysts.
The Taliban aren’t based only in villages and on the periphery of Afghanistan’s cities. Militants and their sympathizers have seeped inside.
Young Taliban fighters study at universities in the capital. Bombings and hit-and-run assassinations in the city have prompted middle-class Afghans to move to newly erected apartment blocks on the outskirts of town. Navigating the city is considered so unsafe that American diplomats fly to and from the airport by helicopter, rather than drive the 2 miles from the embassy.
Many of America’s allies in Afghanistan, who bet on a durable U.S. presence to nudge the country toward social progress and some prosperity, fear a rushed exit.
“If they were here to fight the Taliban, then they should not give [Afghanistan] back to the Taliban,” said Fahim Hashimy, an entrepreneur who built a conglomerate providing logistics to American bases and later established a television channel. “The youth that have learned to live a new way of life. The women who are used to a new standard of life, they can’t just be handed over to someone else.”
The Taliban’s Islamist warriors took control of Afghanistan once before, with tragic implications for the U.S.
At the turn of the 21st century, the Taliban government allowed Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a staging ground for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed nearly 3,000 people. In response, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan, ousted the Taliban from power and drove bin Laden and his followers into the mountains near the Pakistani border.
American and Afghan officials say the Taliban still shelter al Qaeda militants, despite pledges to sever ties. A United Nations report in June said relations between the two organizations remain close “based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.” The Taliban consulted with al Qaeda during negotiations with the U.S., according to the U.N. report.
In October, Afghan special forces killed a senior al Qaeda leader in Ghazni province where he lived under Taliban protection, according to the Afghan intelligence service.
The U.N. says al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan number in the hundreds. Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in Afghanistan including a gun and bomb rampage targeting Kabul University earlier this month, is believed to have several hundred under arms in the country’s east.
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The Taliban see a U.S. withdrawal as victory in their long war.
Muslim Afghan, a nom de guerre, had been thrown in prison in 2014 for being an active member of the Haqqani network, a hard-line wing of the Taliban. He was still in jail in February, and when he and his fellow inmates watched the signing ceremony in Qatar on television, agreeing on the U.S. troop drawdown, Mr. Afghan said, they erupted in cheers of “God is great!”
Weeks later, Mr. Afghan found his name on a list of 5,000 prisoners the Taliban demanded be released as part of the deal. In May, he walked free to replenish Taliban ranks.
“It was a historic day,” he said in October, in a rare interview with a member of the Haqqani network. “We defeated the occupation and they accepted to withdraw from the country.”
As the Taliban steps up pressure on the Afghan government, an American pullout risks mirroring chaotic exits from other foreign battlefields, from the last helicopters departing a Saigon rooftop during the Vietnam War to armored personnel carriers rumbling out of Syria last year, leaving behind Kurdish allies who helped defeat Islamic State.
About 7,500 U.S. troops have already been airlifted out of Afghanistan since February. Private American contractors have been ordered to help dismantle a massive U.S. base in Kandahar and gradually clear goods and equipment from Bagram Air Field. Afghan workers have scooped up discarded goods and scrap metal to sell in local markets, according to bazaar merchants.
With an economy built on hundreds of million of dollars in annual narcotics trade from the country’s poppy fields, according to the U.N. and the U.S. officials, the Taliban have constructed the scaffolding of a parallel state. In areas under their control, augmented by revenues from mining of minerals and precious stones along with targeted taxation, the Taliban run their own judicial system.
U.S. troops aren’t doing any front-line fighting these days, but the military continues to provide air support for Afghan forces, most recently when it helped stave off a Taliban offensive against the provincial capital of Helmand in October. With NATO allies, the U.S. also trains and advises Afghan forces.
Many Afghans fear the Taliban will use the U.S. exit as leverage in the peace negotiations with the government to win outsize political influence or, failing that, push for it militarily.
The Afghan security forces count several hundred thousand soldiers and police. Much of the toughest fighting is done by about 20,000 well-trained army commandos. The government security forces are unlikely to collapse completely in the face of a Taliban onslaught, but they have in the past proven incapable of defending urban centers without American air support. Less than one-third of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts are fully under government control, according to Western security analysts.
Without American military support, security could deteriorate so drastically that Afghanistan could soon erupt in a multisided civil war in which strongmen around the country and Islamist militants fight for territory, Afghan officials say.
“People are increasingly concerned about the return of the Taliban and they’re looking for ways to arm themselves to protect themselves,” Afghanistan’s top security official, National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, said in an interview. The Taliban “believe that without U.S. support they will overrun all our provinces and the government in a month.”
Abdul Ghani Alipoor, a 52-year-old war veteran, is expanding his militia in the central Afghan mountains of Wardak province. He presides over a group of heavily-armed Hazaras, a largely Shiite minority persecuted during the Sunni Taliban reign. The Taliban, who view the Hazaras as heretics, drove the minority from their land, imprisoned Hazara leaders, and targeted them in violent campaigns. The Taliban also destroyed two massive, ancient Buddha statues that were carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan.
Mr. Alipoor’s ragtag militia controls roads and villages in the area. The government accuses his men of extrajudicial killings, intimidation and extortion in an ethnically driven campaign against Pashtuns, who comprise the bulk of the Taliban. Mr. Alipoor denies the allegations.
The commander has in recent months doubled the size of his militia to about 500 armed men, according to Western security analysts, and says he can raise up to 5,000 reserves “with one phone call.”
On a recent morning, hundreds of fighters and residents from the area gathered to mourn a dozen men killed fighting the Taliban. Religious clerics preach resistance against the Taliban and a local printing press distributes recruitment material in villages.
“If America leaves, Hazaras have no choice but to take up weapons,” Abdul Daneshiyar, a local civilian community leader, said from the podium. “We need to support commander Alipoor.”
The hilltops surrounding the plateau were dotted with pickup trucks and filled with fighters keeping lookout, their faces wrapped in scarves and hands cracked from toting weapons in the bitter cold. Some carried expensive sniper rifles with night-vision scopes. Others wielded rocket launchers.
Mr. Alipoor in an interview accused foreign forces of bringing to Afghanistan an unfulfilled hope of peace. “When the Americans came to Afghanistan, they should have brought security to the country,” he said. “If the Americans leave, a big tragedy will happen.”
Although the U.S. failed to defeat the Taliban militarily, dislodging the insurgent group from government ushered in a dramatic social transformation.
Religious minorities now enjoy protection in the constitution. Women are allowed to study and work. Entertainment is no longer banned, and sports halls, malls and bowling alleys in Kabul are bustling.
The lifting of sanctions that had been placed on a Taliban-ruled country also spurred Afghanistan’s economy.
Mr. Hashimy, the entrepreneur who began his career as a translator for U.S. forces, used the new political order in Afghanistan to make enough money to found 1TV, a major television network, in 2010. He expanded into mining, road construction and an airline.
“There was a time when we all worked very hard and sacrificed, both Afghans and on the American side, for democracy and freedom,” said the 40-year-old muscle-bound entrepreneur, who sports a scar by his left eye from a crash in a Humvee.
“Peace is good for investment,” he added. “But leaving us behind a closed door with the same enemy they were here to fight is not fair to the Afghans.”
Striding into a Kabul coffee shop, 28-year-old Farahnaz Forotan, one of the country’s most prominent television journalists and activists, playfully teases her male friends with loud bursts of laughter and firm slaps on the back. She says the U.S. government is abandoning the country and women like her who have gained new freedoms.
“It seems like they just wrapped all of Afghanistan in an envelope and handed it to the Taliban,” she said. “There’s no doubt that if the Taliban come back, they will threaten women’s rights. They haven’t changed.”
Mr. Azizi, the Taliban fighter who was born a year before 9/11 and joined the group when he was 13, agreed that Afghans should expect stricter social norms if the group came to power: Thieves must have their hand cut off to deter others.Women can work and study, but not alongside men. They must wear loose garments that cover the entire body except the face. And they should put away jeans or fashionably loose head scarves that reveal strands of hair.
“The Taliban will never accept this,” Mr. Azizi added. “We have been fighting for 20 years against this.”
Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at email@example.com
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