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U.S. Raises the Stakes in Afghanistan From the Air
Civilian deaths mount as Washington tries to pressure the Taliban in peace talks.
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan—Capt. Safdar Mohammad Andarabi sits with his elbows resting on his knees inside one of the three ramshackle buildings he and his 200 Afghan National Army soldiers tentatively hold in the center of a village in Qala-i-Zal, a rural district only 90 minutes from Kunduz city. Unlike many Afghan commanders, the grim-faced Andarabi doesn’t joke much. What is there to laugh about? He and his men are isolated on a tiny island in a Taliban sea.
“This is a safe area for the Taliban,” Andarabi said. “They can have picnics in Qala-i-Zal, because the government doesn’t do any operations here.”
Accompanied by the district’s exiled governor, Ahmad Fahim Qarluq, I recently drove to Qala-i-Zal, a vast expanse of desert with a belt of lush agricultural land on either side of the Kunduz River. Of the district’s 107 villages, Qarluq told me while steering a Toyota Corolla through sand drifts at high speed—at one point pointing a Kalashnikov out the window to ward off an oncoming vehicle he didn’t recognize—the Afghan government controls just two of them.
It is a snapshot of the predicament the United States finds itself in after nearly 18 years in Afghanistan: Washington and its Afghan allies are trying to keep a desperate foothold in major population centers such as Kunduz city—while ceding much of the rest of the country, such as Qala-i-Zal district, to the Taliban—in hopes of forcing concessions from the Taliban at the peace talks in faraway Doha, Qatar.
And now, in what appears to be an new U.S. strategy to secure the dwindling space it controls and counter the Taliban’s battlefield momentum, the United States may be pursuing a more aggressive air campaign with little restraint—even in populated areas, according to official sources and witness accounts. A senior operative in the Afghan special forces recently told me that their teams were conducting operations every night at the moment—often with Americans—especially in the districts surrounding Kabul, and that they could barely keep up with the targeting demands.
According to official U.S. Air Force figures, the number of airstrikes as of the end of February of this year declined after escalating dramatically through 2018. Even so, those figures say nothing about the nature of the targets, and it may well be that more strikes are occurring in populated areas as the Taliban creep in. Civilian casualties from airstrikes in Afghanistan are as high as they have been in a decade—even in 2009, when 10 times the number of foreign soldiers were present during the U.S. surge, according to a United Nations report released in April. The U.N.’s human rights unit in Afghanistan documented the highest number of civilian casualties from aerial and search operations recorded in the first quarter of any year—that is, January through March—since they began counting in 2009.
And for the first time, during the first quarter of 2019, “Pro-Government Forces were responsible for more civilian deaths than Anti-Government Elements,” the report said. Of those, international military forces were responsible for 232 civilian casualties (146 deaths, 86 injured). In addition, the report said, almost as many innocent civilians are being killed by international forces (146) as by the Taliban (173). The report said this was attributed to a “significant increase in civilian casualties from aerial operations (41 percent increase) and search operations (85 percent increase) by Pro-government Forces” compared to the same period last year.
That in turn raises risks that the Afghan central government could lose more public support to the Taliban even as Kabul seeks, with U.S. help from the air, to solidify its control of the cities.
Among the recent victims, so far unacknowledged by the Americans, was the family of a 25-year-old woman named Rachida, who found herself suddenly awakened the night of March 22 when a firefight erupted near her home, 200 yards from a small Afghan commando base in the village of Aqulabul, seven miles north of Kunduz city. Soon after, as families from the village sheltered in their home, an airstrike came. Thirteen members of Rachida’s family, including five of her own children, were killed, she recounted to me from her hospital bed a week after the attack. The family had only recently moved to Aqulabul after fleeing another village, which had been under Taliban control for a year. Rachida’s husband, Abdul Wahid, 35, who was also killed in the airstrike, had been a member of the government’s Afghan local police. Of their six children, only one was still alive.
Surrounded by family, with bandages covering 80 percent of her body, Rachida recalled the moment she was discovered almost completely buried by the rubble of her home. “I cleared the rubble away from my face. The neighbor eventually came and rescued me. He told me, ‘All your family is dead.’ I lost everything,” she said.
A U.S. spokesman recently declined to comment about this incident—in which five Afghan commandos were also killed—citing an ongoing investigation.
Kunduz, in Afghanistan’s north, was the first provincial capital to be overrun by the Taliban after they were ousted from power in 2001. While the insurgents only held it for a matter of days, they did so twice, once each in 2015 and 2016. Since then, the Taliban have maintained a strong presence just outside the city, and both Washington and the Afghan government in Kabul know that losing a stronghold like Kunduz would be a major blow, undercutting the U.S. position in Doha, where Taliban representatives are pushing hard for a fast U.S. withdrawal.
Since early this year, with the Taliban’s inevitable spring offensive approaching (it was launched on April 12), preventing such a rout has become a priority for the United States. This isn’t anything new. One aspect of the Trump administration’s 2017 South Asia strategy—uncovered by the New York Times in 2018—stated the importance of securing major population centers like Kunduz city while virtually ceding more remote areas to the Taliban. The last time U.S. forces conducted operations in Qala-i-Zal was more than a year ago, in April 2018, when the Taliban last overran the district, said the district’s Afghan National Army commander, Andarabi.
“It would be difficult for the government (and the Americans at this time in the talks) to politically withstand the overrun of a provincial capital,” said one security analyst in Afghanistan, who asked to remain anonymous. She agreed that the recent uptick in civilian casualties due to airstrikes could be a result of this strategy. “Both sides are positioning themselves for talks, or a breakdown of talks. Either way, there is no reason to go soft at the moment,” she said.
The American public may never know much about the success or failure of this strategy—since the U.S. military in Afghanistan under the command of Gen. Austin Scott Miller has decided to go dark after years of reporting on which parts of the country are controlled by the Taliban. Last week, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that “the U.S.-commanded NATO Resolute Support (RS) mission in Afghanistan formally notified SIGAR that it is no longer assessing district-level insurgent or government control or influence. The RS mission said the district-level stability assessments were ‘of limited decision-making value to the [RS] Commander.’”
“We’re troubled by RS’s’ decision,” the inspector general, John Sopko—who reports to the U.S. Congress, not the Defense Department—said in a statement. “As Gen. [John] Nicholson [the previous commander of RS] said, this metric [population control] is the most telling in a counterinsurgency. … The Afghan people know whether they live in a district controlled by the government or the Taliban. The Afghan government knows. The Taliban know. The only people who don’t know are the folks paying for it—the American taxpayer.”
The decision also raises questions about whether the battlefield news was getting too grim for a war-weary American public. “If it were the opposite—if the Afghan government and security forces were gaining territory from the Taliban—I wonder if RS would do the same?” said the security analyst.
Back in Qala-i-Zal, a mix of Afghan soldiers and police occupy a high fort connected to the district center by a narrow road they only dare travel by armored vehicle. The fort overlooks villages and lush, spring crops all around, and it is attacked every night. Those occupying it are nocturnal. When I asked a soldier carrying a quiver of rocket-propelled grenades on his back where the Taliban are, he pointed in one long 270-degree arc.
Sayed Assadullah Sadat, a member of Kunduz’s Provincial Council who is from Qala-i-Zal but has long since fled to Kunduz city, asked: “Why are they defending this base? Three months ago the Taliban captured this base and killed 19 soldiers and local police.”
Trying to lighten the mood, I remarked on his district’s natural beauty. “Beautiful?” he replied. “Is a cemetery full of corpses beautiful?”
The free-for-all in Qala-i-Zal means the Taliban can get to within striking distance of Kunduz city with little contest. Control over much of the small district of Gul Tepa, sandwiched between the city and Qala-i-Zal, has been consolidated by the Taliban since 2016. Its proximity to the city makes it an obvious launching pad for the insurgents’ next major attack.
It was for this reason that a team of American Green Berets were in the area on the night of March 22, when an air attack killed Rachida’s family and the Afghan commandos. They had spent the days prior on a mission in Gul Tepa that resulted in the deaths of two Americans and an Afghan commando.
With the mission complete, their convoy snaked back through narrow roads toward their headquarters on the far side of Kunduz city. The moon was almost full, but scattered clouds dappled its glow on the ground. When they stopped at a bridge over an irrigation canal, the checkpoint where the commandos were staged was only 150 yards away.
It was at this point, a spokesperson for Resolute Support told the New York Times the day after the incident, “The combined Afghan and coalition ground force was fired on by an unknown assailant at close range from the checkpoint as well as from two other directions.” Afghan officials in Kunduz were quick to paint the shooter as a Taliban insider, suggesting that an attack on the base and homes was necessary.
But accounts from survivors on the ground bear little resemblance to the official recounting of events that night.
According to one of the wounded Afghan commandos, Aminullah, whom I spoke to by phone from his bed in the Afghan National Army hospital in Kabul, “There were no insiders in our base.” He said that his unit had two men manning guard towers and another patrolling at all times. Rachida and several men from Aqulabul also dismissed as nonsense the claim made by Resolute Support that the Taliban were hiding in civilian homes “and maneuvered in and out of compounds without any concern for the families living inside.”
During my visit to the site, a neighbor emptied a sack of steel fragments salvaged from the rubble. A munitions expert who viewed my photos, and who asked to remain anonymous, said the markings indicated a precision-guided 250-pound bomb dropped by a fixed-wing NATO (most likely American) aircraft.
It struck the room where Rachida and 14 others from her extended family were huddled, killing all but two, including nine children.