An American General’s Upbeat Afghan Assessment

In the wake of the hotel bombing that killed six people in Kabul on January 14, and following reports that the Taliban plans to turn its guns solely against NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, concern is growing for the future of a country that lurches from tragedy to tragedy, despite insistence from Western forces that progress is afoot.

The Taliban’s attack on the luxurious Serena Hotel, which is owned by the Aga Khan Foundation, one of the most respected names in the Muslim world, sparked fears that the insurrection is reaching into Kabul. The blast came on the heels of the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since the United States-led NATO invasion after the September 11 attacks in 2001. It was also just after the announcement of plans to send more than 3,000 US Marines to bring US forces to their highest level since the invasion.

These events don’t mesh well with the positive outlook expressed by former US Army Brigadier General Douglas Pritt, who retired in June 2007 after a year of training the Afghan army and police forces. Pritt recently sat down witth Asia Sentinel to attempt an assessment of where the country is six years after the Taliban was removed from power.

Pritt, the Army’s No. 2 man in Afghanistan until he retired, says the apparent upsurge in violence is a sign of the Taliban’s desperation as it influence diminishes. He says the Afghan army is increasingly successful and popular, and the morale of US troops is high as they witness the tangible benefits that military intervention has brought to one of the world’s poorest countries. The US and allied forces in Afghanistan are making headway, he says, a perception not completely shared by others.

Former Afghan Foreign Affairs Minister Najibullah Lafraie, for instance, now a lecturer in New Zealand, believes the Taliban is getting stronger, spreading its influence even to the north, away from its southern strongholds. The presence of Western troops is exacerbating the country’s problems, and the longer they stay, he thinks, the stronger the Taliban will get.

But, Pritt argues, the Afghan army, now 30,000-strong, has grown into a disciplined and professional force that conducts its missions with vigor. “Everywhere I went, political leaders, village elders, universally, everybody wanted the army,” he says. “The army is an ethnically balanced force that represents all aspects of Afghan culture and society.”

That’s not to say the training of the armed forces has been trouble free. Equipment was often not up to standard, especially for the police, who were sometimes forced to defend themselves against machine gun-wielding insurgents while armed only with pistols. More modern and improved weapons were arriving for the forces as Pritt left the country, he says. In the meantime, while it was easy to integrate the diverse ethnic groups – the Pashtuns with the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – defections were a problem. Pritt recalls two cases where presumed members of the Taliban posing as Afghan army soldiers killed other soldiers – one in a suicide bomb attack; the other in a shoot-out at a prison.

Those issues aside, Pritt characterises the training of the armed forces as a continuing success. “They adapted, they were enthusiastic, they were courageous, they wanted to learn.” Together with the police, the army stacks up well against the Taliban and has “huge influence,” he says.

The Taliban, however, can amass forces for a short duration and for specific operations, he says, and can be successful when it picks its spots. 2007 was the most violent year of the conflict, with 140 suicide bombings and a 20 percent increase in Taliban attacks, according the UN. Pritt, however, dismisses the increase in bloodshed as desperation on the part of the Taliban.

“They see their area of operation shrinking, they see their influence shrinking, and so with that, it’s just like anything, they’re more trapped, more desperate, and so they take more desperate acts.” The types of attacks they are carrying out – especially suicide bombing – require few resources but have spectacular effects, garnering more media coverage, especially because they’re killing a lot of civilians.

While the insurgency still hasn’t been suppressed, that doesn’t mean the military operation has been a failure. Pritt envisages a day when there will be elected members of the Taliban in the parliament because the aim is not to eliminate the Taliban. “If that’s your goal, then I think you’re on the wrong course of action,” he says. “What you’re trying to eliminate is terrorism, and I think we’ve made good strides in that. [The Taliban’s] actions now are not on a large scale or as well coordinated as they were. I don’t believe that they’re able to conduct operations throughout the country, and I believe that’s a function of their lack of support by the people.”

The insurgents’ tactics are proving costly, Pritt says. “It’s difficult for them to generate support when they behead people, when they burn schools, when they threaten girls that go to school, when they threaten females who are leaders in society, who are teachers, who are pillars – examples of the right things to do.”

Economically, if commonly accepted yardsticks are to be believed, Afghanistan is making progress. Its economy has been developing at a 25 percent annual clip – driving it all the way to 157th among the world’s 180 countries, according a study by the UK’s Library of Parliament. That’s hardly a vote of confidence, given that, according to the World Bank, as much as 80 to 90 percent of the economy takes place in the “informal sector,” a significant share relating to the cultivation of poppies and the production of opium.

“Further complicating matters is the fact that ongoing conflict limits the government’s political and economic influence to the capital, Kabul, and a few other cities and regions,” notes the UK study.

While the allied forces say they’re making progress and the Afghan economy continues to grow quickly – moving the country “from crushingly poor to extremely poor,” as The Economist puts it – the Taliban insurgency won’t die.

Lafraie doesn’t buy the progress story. The former minister left Afghanistan in 1997 after a year in hiding from the Taliban. He returned to Kabul for the first time in nine years in November 2006 and while there interviewed President Hamid Karzai, several members of parliament, political pundits, and a high level Afghan military officer.

It was only since mid-2006 that the allied forces became serious about training the Afghan army, and though it is now improving, it can do little on its own, he says. “They are very far away from being able to be an independent force,” Lafraie says. One of the difficulties with NATO is that when it captures an area it doesn’t have enough forces to maintain security. It thus leaves the work to Afghan security forces, and often the areas fall back into the hands of the Taliban, he says.

Lafraie questions the assertion that the army and police stack up well against the insurgents. “If the Afghan forces were strong, why would they need the NATO forces? And why [is there] so much emphasis on sending new troops to Afghanistan? In effect, the Taliban have the upper-hand.”

While he wishes it were true that the Taliban were in desperate straits, he doesn’t think that’s the case. “It’s not only that they are strong, but they are getting stronger.” He argues that as long as the Western forces remain in the country, the Taliban will have an important recruiting tool.

Lafraie has advocated a plan to withdraw Western troops from Afghanistan and replace them with a Muslim international peacekeeping force under UN command. “The Western troops – the NATO and allied forces – they have become part of the problem in Afghanistan, and they cannot be part of the solution. As long as they are there, as long as they continue committing ‘mistakes’, I think the Taliban will grow stronger.”