KABUL, Afghanistan — As the world watches peace talks between the Taliban and United States representatives in Doha, Qatar, Afghans are acutely aware of how much is on the line for their country—especially members of the Afghan National Security Forces.
The men and women of the ANSF have spent the last 18 years fighting for two countries: their homeland, and the U.S. As bodies were still being recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center in 2001, Afghans fought shona ba shona, "shoulder to shoulder," with U.S. forces to push the Taliban out of Afghanistan.
Eighteen years later, both America and Afghanistan find themselves far short of their goals to create a peaceful future for the country without the Taliban. Few Afghans I spoke to expressed confidence in a military solution to the now 18-year war. Those in the military continue to suffer the majority of casualties, even as civilian casualties have reached their highest levels since 2009. On January 25th, President Ashraf Ghani revealed that 45,000 Afghan security personnel, including policemen and those in the army, have been killed since U.S. forces ceased offensive operations in Afghanistan in 2014. The casualty rate for Afghan security forces has been described by a U.S. official as "unsustainable."
The Taliban controls or disputes more than half the country. It carried out a number of attacks on the date of the October parliamentary election (held years behind schedule), making that day the single deadliest day for Afghan civilians in 2018. The week of the election, the American commander for all U.S. forces in Afghanistan narrowly escaped a Taliban attack in Kandahar, where General Abdul Raziq—a controversial but beloved Afghan National Army general—was assassinated. The governor of Helmand Province, where over 100 U.S. Marines were killed in four years of fighting from 2010 to 2014, was murdered by a bomb hidden in a couch.
In addition to battling each other, the Afghan government and the Taliban fight against al-Qaeda's stepchild, Daesh—known to Americans as ISIS—in Nangarhar Province on the Afghan–Pakistan border. In 2018 Daesh caused twice as many civilian casualties as it had in 2017.
As the snow begins to melt after one of the coldest winters in recent memory, the Taliban and the Afghan military have stepped up their attacks on each other. The thaw has caused massive flash floods in the very provinces where a majority of the fighting occurs, further punishing the civilians caught between the government and the Taliban. Both sides blame the other for the increased violence, holding up the others' unwillingness to cease combat operations as proof of a lack of interest in peace.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. government so far have pointedly excluded the Afghan government in Kabul. It's a move eerily reminiscent of negotiations in Paris in the final days of the Vietnam War: talks that ultimately ended in a full withdraw of U.S. military troops and the collapse of South Vietnam fewer than two years later. History suggests America's investment in Afghanistan is far more concerned with counterterrorism than the success of the Afghan government.
Afghans, regardless of allegiance, know that this is a decisive moment for the future of their country.
I spoke with young Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan this month to see how they feel about the peace talks, their service, and their biggest ally that may soon leave them to fight the Taliban on their own. It's on their shoulders that the future of Afghanistan rests, peace deal or no. If America withdraws its military and financial support of the Afghan government, the ANSF will be the thin line holding out against a resurgent Taliban, now armed with the spoils of 18 years of war and corruption. If a peace deal is brokered, the complicated process of maintaining a peace no one can quite envision today will fall on their shoulders. Until a resolution is reached, good or bad, they will continue to hold out.
Despite the increasing number of ANSF casualties, young Afghans continue to compete for the chance to join Afghanistan's security forces. Long-standing ethnic divisions in Afghanistan have forced the military to adopt a quota system for accepting recruits, ensuring the most visible arm of the Kabul government is not seen as an extension of previous ethnic conflict. It's a system that almost stopped Ali (whose name has been changed at his request), a bright young Afghan from Uruzgan, in central Afghanistan, from fulfilling his dream.
Born in 1998, Ali does not remember the Taliban era, but one of his earliest memories is of American fighter planes flying overhead in the early years of the war. "When I was a child I dreamed of being in the army," Ali told me in Kabul. "I saw a plane passing overhead and I wished to be a pilot for the military."
His family and friends supported his dream; his parents told him they would be proud of any job of his as long as he was not a terrorist or a thief.
A few months ago Ali finished high school and sat for the KANKOR exam, the Afghan standardized test taken after high school that determines eligibility for everything from universities to employment opportunities. The highest score is 360 and Ali scored a 312, the kind of result that opens doors to lucrative government and non-governmental organization jobs, as well as universities. Despite the myriad of less dangerous and higher-paying options, Ali was firm in his desire to serve.
From Ali's area, only 10 members of his ethnicity were allowed to join the military. Despite having the highest score of all who tried to join, he was told he was not selected for service. Ali was crushed, but decided to appeal to the government in Kabul. An Afghan news outlet picked up his story, and a social media campaign finally helped him reach the attention of high-level government officials. Eventually, Ghani himself intervened on his behalf, and Ali was finally allowed to join. Next month he starts training, an experience he is eager for.
Ali spoke quickly, with a quiet but urgent cadence. When I asked him if he is afraid, he shook his head. Like young Americans who join the military, he had not learned to be afraid of war. He was inspired and determined to fight. "I know it's dangerous but it's my choice. If you believe in the country and peace, you don't think about the danger."
Afghans have polarized reactions to American and Afghan air power. For those who've been on the receiving end of airstrikes that miss their intended target or destroy homes housing both Taliban and civilians, the presence of military aircraft can become a major wedge between them and the Kabul government. For those who've been protected by U.S. and Afghan forces, the air power is proof of an Afghan military that is modern and self-sustaining.
The Afghan Air Force is a vital component for an Afghan military that can stand on its own once U.S. and international forces leave Afghanistan. According to most experts, it's far from being ready to fly solo.
During a recent visit to the Afghan Air Force headquarters in Kabul, foreign contractors could be seen guiding Afghan Air Force repair technicians. But Lieutenant General Mohammad Shoaib, the commander of the Afghan Air Force, suggested his men and women are more ready to take up the fight alone than previously described in the press. He pointed out that the Air Force now conducts air operations without the aid of international forces, and noted the growing number of female pilots being trained who will join their male comrades on missions. He admitted the maintenance side of the Air Force is still at about 40 percent capacity to function autonomously—hence the heavy presence of foreign contractors and U.S. military advisers needed to keep their fleet of helicopters and airplanes operational.
I mentioned Ali to Shoaib, and asked him his thoughts about young Afghans who wish to become pilots for the Army. He chuckled, and spread his hands across his desk as he explained.
"For 100 slots, we get 1,000 volunteers. Everyone wants to be a pilot," he said. "But we need them in other areas like maintenance and operations."
Before we could wrap up the interview, the door to his office opened. A U.S. Army colonel walked in, careful not to speak until I left the room. He was flanked by two other U.S. Army officers, both women, and both armed with M-4 assault rifles and holstered pistols. As I stepped out into the adjoining waiting room, three more members of his armed security escort, wearing full body armor and tightly gripping their rifles, stood next to plush couches meant for guests.
It was a jarring reminder of the relationship between U.S. forces in Afghanistan and their allies in the Afghan government: a relationship plagued by fear, misunderstanding, and frustration. "Green on blue" attacks—in which Afghan soldiers attacked Americans on base, sometimes while the Americans were unarmed—were more common in previous years and led to joint U.S./ANSF bases becoming segregated with Americans on one side and Afghan soldiers on their own. American leadership argued that these attacks were committed by hardened Taliban fighters who joined the Afghan Army with the sole intention of attacking when the time was right. Some ANSF soldiers suggest that the treatment of Afghan soldiers by U.S. forces may have been at least partially responsible as well.
As with the American military, part of the appeal of the Afghan Air Force is the relative safety to be found among the clouds or inside a hanger. But a majority of Afghans who join the army end up in combat and support units deployed across the country, feet firmly planted on the ground—ground that can turn deadly in an instant if one triggers an improvised explosive device.
The soldiers who spoke with me did so on the condition of anonymity. They were all of university age, though none seemed to have considered college an option economically. Even those who described lifelong dreams of military service acknowledged that employment was as much a motivator as patriotism. All had seen combat, some for years on end.
Many described a sense of change recently, in their friends and families, and in the people they meet on patrol and while on leave in safer parts of the country. Some suggested the American withdraw is, if not completely to blame, certainly increasing the sense of unease and fear.
"In the beginning my family really supported me, but because of the situation now my family doesn't support me and my friends aren't supporting me," explained a soldier who'd fought in Wardak Province in the center of the country. Today, he said, "I don't even support myself. In the war, you never know when you're going to die. You can be in a vehicle and a bomb will explode. Hadaf malom neest. We die for no reason. Jangee brodar ba brodar jawoz da dorad. There is no reason to fight against your brother."
Another soldier from a support unit who enlisted in 2014, the same year that U.S. forces ceased combat operations in Afghanistan, described frustration with attempting to solve what he considered a political problem with military force: "If my leaders want to bring peace, they have to sit and discuss how to bring peace. We are really tired of fighting." It's a sentiment that, at least according to some, is shared by the Taliban fighters on the other side of the war.
"After the Americans leave, we will have to work together to build this country," another soldier said. "We don't have a choice."
The Taliban usually announces its spring offensive in April, but it appears to have jumped the gun this year, staging a massive three-day assault against the largest U.S./Afghan base in Helmand Province earlier this month. Both American and Afghan soldiers who've fought in this country will tell you that spring is the most beautiful time of year in Afghanistan—and often the deadliest for those fighting for it.
"I have no idea what will happen," said a soldier when asked about the upcoming fighting season. "We know every area is getting worse. We'll see what will happen. Every day it gets worse and worse, not better. I wish for peace, everyone wishes to have peace in this country."
Afghans across the country are watching the news and speculation from Doha, though few I spoke with expect it to end well. "I think Americans don't want to make peace in this country," lamented one soldier. "When I was a child I didn't know this, but now I know if the Americans wanted to remove the Taliban, they can do it. They could remove them forever." His voice became stern as he said, "I want to remove them forever, and make peace forever."
Nonetheless, the peace talks have given some soldiers a glimpse of hope that this spring may be different. "If the peace process works it will be better, but if not, then nothing will change," said one young infantryman, a veteran of operations against the Taliban in Kunduz, one of Afghanistan's most volatile northern provinces.
Some recall the crushingly brief ceasefire between the Afghan government and the Taliban last year, when Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces mingled in cities across the country for Eid, the end of Ramadan. For some Taliban fighters it was their first time seeing Afghanistan's major urban cities, and they spoke openly to journalists and civilians of their fierce desire for peace and exhaustion from a lifetime of warfare.
Most of the Afghan soldiers I spoke with were unanimous in their appreciation for America's investment in Afghanistan, but seemed ready for—or resigned to—America's departure. "I would like to thank Americans for their help and support to this country," one soldier said. "They came here and lots of soldiers died and were injured and I feel sorrow for Americans who died here."
One soldier expressed frustration with the American military approach to Afghanistan, lamenting the fact that much of the military equipment used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan was never shared with Afghan forces. "If they want to build a table, it shouldn't be made of wood, it should be made of metal so after they leave we could still use it," the soldier offered as an example, a reference to the number of former U.S. military bases scattered across Afghanistan that are now left to deteriorate without the funding and personnel to maintain them.
Despite the fear of what comes next, most of the soldiers spoke of the future as the true test of the Afghan military, when it will stand alone against the Taliban: "I'm happy for [the Americans] to leave because they did a lot and now it's time for us to help the country. We can't wait for someone else to always support us. The Afghan army and police should be able to serve this country."