2014 was the bloodiest year of the war in Afghanistan — for Afghans

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Macro Werman: I'm Marco Werman and let's start things on The World today taking stock of Afghanistan. It was America's longest was. "Was" because, technically, it's over. But, the fight against the Taliban continues. In fact...


Sean Carberry: Last year was a new record for civilian casualties.


Werman: That's Sean Carberry, NPR's former correspondent in Kabul.


Carberry: And what this correlates to is Afghan forces taking charge of security over the course of last year.


Werman: Carberry came into our studio today to talk about his new article in the magazine The Diplomat, analyzing Afghanistan's transition.


Carberry: It was an increase in ground engagements fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban, and that started to encroach more on populated areas. So, the UN was finding that there were a lot more civilians -- especially women and children -- who were getting caught in the crossfire. One of the controversies for a long time had been civilian casualties caused by the US and NATO, often through air strikes or night raids. Those have been gradually decreasing to the point that they're very minimal at this point, but now there are more casualties being caused by the Afghan forces. So, that's something that's going to cause a greater concern. They don't have the same discipline and measures in place to try to minimize civilian casualties. There was a mortar round that they had fired in an operation in early January that struck a wedding and killed a couple of dozen people. So, this is something that is going to be of concern and going to be watched over the course of this year. What can the Afghan forces do to minimize the harm to civilians?


Werman: And, Sean, you just said the people most at risk are women and children, and yet we keep hearing this constant drumbeat about how life has improved for women and children in Afghanistan. So, how do you square that? Are things better for them?


Carberry: For a lot of them, yes. There are paradoxes; there's no question about it. As US officials have been saying, that since the fall of the Taliban you have more women in school, girls in school. You have women in the workforce, and these things are broadly true. But, you also have to look at the trajectory over the last couple years of this transition from the international community running the show to Afghan security forces and this political transition. In that time, there's been a lot of back sliding. Again, civilian casualties have gone up. Women's advocates say that their rights are being chipped away. There was a decrease in the percentage of women who are elected to provincial council seats. There have been significant concerns that if there are peace talks with the Taliban, that women will be the ones to see the most harm through their rights being negotiated away. So, as I say, things are better for a lot of people than they were in 2001, but for a lot of people they're getting worse than they were in, say, 2011, 2012.


Werman: So, do civilians -- especially civilians in the countryside of Afghanistan -- see the Taliban as an alternative to the current government?


Carberry: There are those who do and that's been a consistent strain through the countryside for years, that there are places where if the government is weak and the Taliban are there, people will side with that just purely out of self-interest. They want to be with whoever they think is stronger, whoever they think is likely to protect them, give them services. So, if the Taliban come into a community where the governments aren't functioning at any significant level, people will side with them. It doesn't necessarily mean they're ideologically inclined. They're just looking out for their own self-interest and that has also been a growing dynamic, where Taliban have been able to take some more ground in remote parts of the country now that foreign forces have drawn back.


Werman: For you, Sean, nearly three years watching Afghanistan up close and hearing the US party line there and seeing the reality on the ground, what are your thoughts as a journalist -- and also, somebody who's pulled out of the country -- just one what the future is for Afghanistan?


Carberry: Well, I think one of the problems all along has been unrealistic expectations and even Western officials I talked to over the years said that this was a problem, that there were unrealistic expectations given to the Afghan people and to the American people about what could be accomplished there and what this money was ultimately going to result in. It's not realistic to expect that Afghanistan is going to be a functional democracy any time in our lifetime. One official said a goal is to get it to the level of maybe Bangladesh in another generation or so. So, setting realistic expectations about what can be accomplished, how much you can change a society where seventy percent of the people live in rural areas, are still very traditional, very tribal, don't have a lot of resources, aren't getting great education.


Werman: It's funny you mention Afghans and I wonder, does Afghanistan really exist when we're talking about local sectarian tribal peoples all over the country? Do they believe in Afghanistan as a nation state?


Carberry: In principle, I would say most people that I talk to do. It's been around long enough. It's been pushed. It's been something that's been a goal. But, quickly below the surface you do get into a lot of fishers. Even this young generation of educated Afghans who are talking about this post-ethnic Afghanistan, it's really still very much an ideal. In the election last year, even young people were breaking down very much on ethnic lines and supporting certain candidates. So, there is a certain believe in the concept of it as a nation, but, again, when you get outside the big cities and onto the ground, these other forces are very strong.


Werman: So, this takes me back to 1989 when the Soviets left behind a strong army and an air force, but then the country fell apart politically. The regime collapsed a few years later. Can this new Afghanistan hold together politically?


Carberry: Right now, it's being tested, and that's what people are watching. You have this new national unity government that evolved from the disputed election. It's uncharted waters, so people don't know if this government system will work. So far, it's struggling. It's been more than four months since they were inaugurated and they're still fighting over putting together the cabinet. Given how long it's taken just to get this far, there are very serious concerns about how effective this government is going to be and whether this model will hold together or it'll splinter and they'll have to reinvent another system here.


Werman: Well, obviously the tendency is always to talk about the dysfunction of Afghanistan. I want to ask you, Sean, what you're going to miss about Afghanistan and especially Kabul -- where you lived -- and your life there.


Carberry: In Kabul... It was a bit of a surprise when I got there of how different it was than a lot of the rest of the country. It was relatively safe, although that did deteriorate a bit over the time that I was there. But, there was a scene there where foreigners and a lot of Afghans did interact. There was a social scene. There was a music place that I used to play guitar often with young Afghan musicians. That kind of interaction was something that was very rewarding personally and professionally. So, I will definitely miss those people and those types of interactions and hope that that does continue and that, again, the deterioration we are seeing in Kabul doesn't continue.


Werman: What was the best song you learned from any of those Afghan musicians? I know you're kind of rooted in the blues. You learned any kind of new idiom, new twist?


Carberry: Well, probably the most satisfying night was playing with some traditional Afghan musicians who had instruments whose names I can't even remember, but some of the Eastern stringed instruments. A little drone box. And they played for awhile and then another American guitar player and I got up and sat in with them and tried to fit into this very sort of Eastern drone-like sounding psychedelic music. We ended up playing with them for a couple hours that night. It was an absolute blast just trying to integrate with their sounds and trying to show them a few blues licks in the process.


Werman: Wow. Nice to hear that a "drone" still means something else -- not a "UAV" -- in Afghanistan. Former NPR Kabul correspondent Sean Carberry. Thanks so much for coming in.


Carberry: You're welcome, Marco.