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Conflict & Justice

The Afghan government failed to earn the trust of its people, retired US Army col. says

The Taliban has now taken over six provincial capitals across Afghanistan, raising concerns as US and NATO forces finalize their departure from the country. Retired US Army Col. Christopher Kolenda tells The World's host Marco Werman that Afghans need to develop their own strategy moving forward.

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Shops are damaged after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Kunduz city, northern Afghanistan, Aug. 8, 2021.

Credit:

Abdullah Sahil/AP

The Taliban onslaught continues in Afghanistan. The group took control of two more provincial capitals in Afghanistan on Monday, for a total of six, according to officials.

Their fall marked the latest development in a weekslong, relentless offensive, as American and NATO forces finalize their pullout from a two-decade war in the country.

The sweep comes despite condemnations by the international community and warnings from the United Nations that a military victory and takeover by the Taliban would not be recognized. The Taliban have also not heeded appeals to return to the negotiating table and continue long-stalled peace talks with the Afghan government.

Related: As the Taliban advances, life in Afghanistan becomes increasingly precarious

With Taliban attacks increasing, Afghan security forces and government troops have retaliated with airstrikes aided by the United States. The fighting has also raised growing concerns about civilian casualties.

On Monday, UNICEF said it was shocked by the increasing number of casualties among children amid the escalating violence in Afghanistan. Over the past three days, at least 27 children have been killed in various provinces, including 20 in Kandahar, it said.

Related: Rocket fire in Kabul signals deepening insecurity as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan

Retired US Army Col. Christopher Kolenda, who served in Afghanistan as a high-level adviser to the Department of Defense, discussed the situation with the World's host Marco Werman. Kolenda is also the author of "Zero-Sum Victory: What We're Getting Wrong About War." And he's the first American to have fought the Taliban in combat and engaged them in peace talks.

Marco Werman: When you see this happening after 20 years of struggle to prop up the Afghan government and its military, what is your reaction?
Christopher Kolenda: Well, my emotions, how I feel about it are a combination of frustration, embarrassment and anger. I spent a lot of time on the ground in Afghanistan. Six of my soldiers were killed in action fighting against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Scores of my soldiers were wounded. You know, a lot of us spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears, so to speak, in Afghanistan. And we put our heart and soul into this effort and to see the Taliban gain so much territory and the Afghan security forces not be able to rally is frustrating.
During your years of service, what were your concerns that this scenario would play out if the US ever left Afghanistan?
Well, the Afghan government had to do one thing to be successful, and that's earn the trust of the people, earn the buy-in from the people, and they haven't been able to do that. And as a result, what you're seeing are Afghans who are supporting the Taliban. The Afghan government, in fact, not only didn't earn the trust of enough of its people to prevent an insurgency, but because they engaged in predatory and kleptocratic behavior, they actually turned a number of Afghans away from them and into the arms of the Taliban.
Apparently, the Afghan forces are having some success at stopping the Taliban. Residents of Lashkar Gah, for example, still had to flee Taliban advances, but apparently, significant casualties were incurred on the Taliban side there. Still, six provincial capitals are under Taliban control. Why do you think Afghan forces are having these difficulties subduing the enemy? What's at the heart of this failure?
You've got leaders within the Afghan security forces, that their soldiers just simply don't want to fight for them. The soldiers don't believe in them. Unfortunately, prices in the Afghan security forces in many positions have gone for sale. The expectation is that they can use the position to make the money back, and so, this undermines their leadership.
So, the training and supporting of the Afghan military that was supposed to hold the country after two decades by the US, were those efforts just inadequate? I mean, what went wrong?
Well, part of it is the leadership and the corruption problem. Big problem No. 2 is that they've got a strategy that simply does not work. Unfortunately, through much of the conflict, the US military officers would write the Afghan security force strategy and then it would be translated into Dari and Pashto. Afghans needed to develop their own strategy. You know, this idea that we would develop it for them and then translate it into their language just meant that they had no buy-in and no ownership. It was primarily that problem, where the Afghan security forces just didn't have the buy-in, didn't get the repetitions of developing a strategy and trying it, adapting it, being innovative. None of those things happened.
So, how do you see this playing out? Will the Afghan government be able to hold on? And if they can't, what happens next?
I think you've got three broad scenarios for how this plays out. The first one, and the most favorable one, is the Afghan government and security forces sideline these toxic leaders, rally and fight the Taliban to a stalemate. And if they can do that, then you're going to get serious peace talks. Scenario No. 2 is that the Afghan security forces collapse and the Taliban has a takeover; and they manage to get the indiscipline problems under control, so that takeover is successful.The scenario that concerns me the most is a third one, in which the Afghan government security forces sort of fracture, continue fracturing. And then the Taliban experiences catastrophic growth. And they're on the cusp of this right now, where they grow beyond their ability to manage it and they begin to fragment from within, due to internal, you're seeing some of the indiscipline that's a leading indicator of catastrophic growth. Now, if this happens, you get the government and the Taliban both imploding, then what you're going to have are the rise of these, sort of, warring fiefdoms. And if you get a warring fiefdoms scenario in Afghanistan, then this could be worse than the 1990 civil war.

 

Personally for you, as someone who has invested a lot of time and energy in Afghanistan, is the country a US concern for a while?
I remember talking with Haji Ibrahim in 2010 and just looking into his eyes. And you see the frustration and the sadness of Afghanistan. Afghans have been at war for now for over 40 years. And at the same time, you see that the disappointment in all of the things that have tried have not worked. And then the hope, I saw all of this in his eyes at once. He's one of the people that, when I wanted to stay involved in Afghanistan — it's relationships with people like him and many, many others — that said, "You know what, this is worth fighting for."We need to have this partnership for a long time. And it frustrates me that the United States just missed so many opportunities, and the Afghan government missed so many opportunities to bring this war to a successful conclusion. And now, here we are with the Taliban taking six capitals in the last few days and poised to take a few more.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.

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