17 years on, is Afghanistan making progress toward peace?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Less than a month after
the attacks of 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan to hunt al-Qaida and to remove
the Taliban government that was sponsoring them. Seventeen years later, the U.S. and its allies
remain there, fighting alongside Afghan forces against a strong Taliban insurgency. Our Nick Schifrin lived in Afghanistan for
more than three years, and reports now on where things stand in America’s longest war. NICK SCHIFRIN: In Eastern Afghanistan this
morning, the wounded arrived back to back, and kept coming for hours, stretcher after
stretcher. They had been protesting in a group when a
suicide bomber blew himself up, more than 150 casualties. Seventeen years after 9/11, Afghanistan has
never been more dangerous for civilians. In the first six months of 2009, the war killed
or wounded 2,492 civilians. In the first six months of 2013, the number
was 3,921. And in the first six months of 2018, the number
was 5,122. The current U.S. strategy is for 14,000 troops
to work with lower-level Afghan units, who do the vast majority of the fighting. The idea is to have Afghan soldiers increase
pressure on the Taliban, and hopefully compel them to negotiate, as President Trump said
last August. DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States:
After an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement
that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever
happen. NICK SCHIFRIN: U.S. commanders admit the war
is a stalemate and want the Taliban to talk, as outgoing Command General John Nicholson
said last week. GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, Commander U.S. Forces, Afghanistan:
To the Taliban, I say, you don’t need to keep killing your fellow Afghans. You don’t need to keep killing your fellow
Muslims. The time for peace is now. NICK SCHIFRIN: And peace is what the Afghans
crave. At the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan,
the Taliban and government reached a three-day cease-fire. Residents and fighters embraced. But since then, the Taliban have launched
a blitz of attacks to increase their influence and try to seize territory. in May 2016, the Taliban controlled 9 percent
of the country and contested 25 percent. In May 2017, the Taliban controlled 13 percent
and contested 30 percent. And in May 2018, the Taliban controlled 14
percent of the country, in red, contested 30 percent, in yellow. The government controlled only 56 percent,
in green. Despite the ongoing violence, there’s been
some progress, including in health care. In 2005, the mortality rate for children under
5 was 110 deaths per 1,000. By 2010, that rate drops to 90 per 1000. And in 2016, it dropped again to 74 per 1,000. Progress in education has been even more dramatic. In 2002, one million children attended school,
almost all boys. Today, more than 9.2 million are enrolled
in school, including 3.5 million girls. But the U.N. says nearly half of children
are out of school. And Afghanistan suffers from brain drain,
especially among the young, like these refugees fleeing by foot to Turkey, after deciding
Afghanistan, their homeland, was no longer safe. Let’s take a broader look now at the Afghan
war and prospects for peace with Barney Rubin. He served in the Obama administration’s State
Department and was one of the originators of their plan to start negotiations with the
Taliban. And Ambassador Robin Raphel had a nearly-40-year
career in the Foreign Service, including as assistant secretary of state for South Asia. She’s now a senior associate at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies, and has been active in efforts to promote a political
track in Afghanistan. Welcome to you both. Thank you very much. ROBIN RAPHEL, Former State Department Official:
Thank you. NICK SCHIFRIN: Robin Raphel, let me start
with you. We have — we do have some metrics of progress
in Afghanistan. But are they isolated? ROBIN RAPHEL: Well, I wouldn’t say they’re
isolated. I think the most important metric of progress
now is that Afghanistan’s connected to the world. There’s social media. There’s Internet, news, and so on so forth. And, as many people indicate, there are a
lot of improvements in social indicators, health, education, longevity, literacy, and
so on and so forth. And you have a new generation of young people
in Afghanistan that wants to stay and help develop the country in a more progressive
way. But, of course, there’s also insecurity, as
we have seen today and previously. There’s a war economy that’s not sustainable. There’s corruption. And, of course, much of the progress is confined
to and the urban areas. NICK SCHIFRIN: Barney Rubin, there is a more
educated population in Afghanistan, a younger population. There is also more Afghan institutions today
than there were many years ago, right? BARNETT RUBIN, Former State Department Official:
Yes. It’s hard for people to understand just how
destroyed and isolated Afghanistan was 17 years ago. The airport didn’t even have a functioning
conveyor belt. Now it has a president, parliament, courts,
police, an army, a functioning airport, Internet, mobile phones, schools, educational system,
health system. And there are vast things wrong with all of
these things, but they exist, and it’s become more of a normal country in that respect. But it’s still very abnormal, in that thousands
of people are being killed in horrible ways every year, and even every month. NICK SCHIFRIN: That violence continues. Robin Raphel, the war is a stalemate, so commanders
say. Do you believe that? Is it a stalemate? ROBIN RAPHEL: I do. I do. I think the Taliban realize that they can’t
force the international forces out. And I think the international forces and our
commanders realize we can’t win in the traditional sense. NICK SCHIFRIN: Barney Rubin, is part of the
reason that the U.S. can’t win, so to speak, not only because of actual military abilities
on the ground, but also the capacity of the Afghan government and the capacity of the
Afghan security forces? BARNETT RUBIN: Yes, because it’s misleading
in a way to talk about this as a war and to evaluate it in military terms. It is a political struggle. It’s not between the Afghan army and the Taliban
fighters and the U.S. military. It’s between the U.S. government, the Afghan
government, and the Taliban, which is a political organization. And the reasons for the weakness of our side,
compared to the huge amount of resources that we have put into it, has to do with the political
leadership, the lack of consensus, and problems of legitimacy of the government, and of lack
of clarity of U.S. policy. NICK SCHIFRIN: The clarity of U.S. policy
has been a problem, Robin Raphel, for a long time. But is there clarity on one thing today? And that is willingness to talk with the Taliban
and willingness to pursue a political solution. ROBIN RAPHEL: I think today, now, there is
a consensus to start talks, not negotiations, talks, with the Taliban. There’s already been one round, as the U.S.
government hasn’t confirmed, but I think it’s broadly accepted that that occurred. So I think there is a recognition that the
political track has lagged way behind the military track, and that it was time to put
some action behind what everybody is saying, which was there’s no military solution to
this war. So, yes, what is concerning is, how much — how
far are we willing to go in these talks? How much flexibility will there be for negotiators
and so on? NICK SCHIFRIN: And, Barney Rubin, is the question
not only about how far the U.S. is willing to go, but how willing the Taliban are, for
example, to meet the Afghan government, something that’s important if these talks are going
to succeed, right? BARNETT RUBIN: Yes. It’s — often, the question is posed in a
kind of simple way, which is, do both sides, especially do the Taliban, want a negotiate
settlement, or do they want to keep fighting? Actually, everyone wants a negotiated settlement
that is advantageous to them. But the reason that the talks have not started
is because they cannot agree about who are the relevant parties. The Taliban want to talk to the United States
directly. The Afghan government wants to talk to the
Taliban. And the Afghan government wants to talk to
Pakistan, which is backing the Taliban, in their view. So we have got right now bunch of talks about
how the negotiations are eventually to be organized. At this point, there’s a stalemate, not just
militarily, but there’s a political stalemate over the question of whether talks are going
to be led by the Afghan government, or if they will be in some other kind of format
which is more acceptable to the Taliban. NICK SCHIFRIN: Robin Raphel, can the U.S.
government put pressure on both the Taliban perhaps and the Afghan government, so that
the two sides can actually meet? ROBIN RAPHEL: I think, eventually, yes. But I believe that, in the first instance,
there has to be a dialogue between the Taliban and the U.S. government that goes a bit further
than it’s gone this far. But, eventually, clearly, the Afghan — the
Taliban have to talk to the Afghan government. And other players in the region are going
to need to be brought in to whatever settlement is finally agreed. NICK SCHIFRIN: I assume that means including
Pakistan? ROBIN RAPHEL: That does mean including Pakistan. NICK SCHIFRIN: And is Pakistan willing to
do that? ROBIN RAPHEL: I believe so. I mean, I think Pakistan wants stability in
Afghanistan, contrary to the view that you hear, oh, they’re just trying to sow chaos. No, they want stability. But the question is, on what terms? NICK SCHIFRIN: Barney Rubin, if Pakistan wants
to ability, and if Taliban, the U.S. and the Afghan government all want a political solution,
does that mean there’s momentum? BARNETT RUBIN: Well, there’s a kind of momentum
now, because, for the first time in my memory, all the parties to the conflict are saying
clearly that they want a negotiated settlement. But stability is a kind of vacuous term. Everyone wants peace if it means that they
are in charge of it. So, right now, there’s — there’s a lack of
clarity about whether the United States military forces will stay during — after the peace,
or whether they’re going as a precondition for it, over whether the Taliban will be negotiating
the terms of being integrated into the current Afghan government system, or whether that
system will be replaced with some new kind of system that will be negotiated among Afghans. It’s extremely difficult to actually put all
these things together and make them work. As I said, there’s more determination and
focus on the idea of a political settlement now than I have seen before. So let’s not try to predict the future. Let’s get to work. NICK SCHIFRIN: Barney Rubin, Robin Raphel,
thank you very much. ROBIN RAPHEL: You’re most welcome.

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