The sudden killings of six American service members on a foot patrol by a suicide bomber this week is a graphic message back home that the Taliban are durable, able to launch a number of coordinated attacks in recent months across Afghanistan 14 years after the U.S. invasion.
A Pentagon report calls the security situation “fragile” and writes of the Taliban’s “resilience throughout the second half of the year.”
The security picture seems to be more precarious now than in recent years. The Taliban are targeting Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) units that are working without any American direct ground combat role and only sporadic air power.
The U.S. has 9,800 troops in the country, mostly in the east and in and around Bagram airfield north of Kabul, strictly in a train-and-assist role. Afghans take the lead on all combat missions.
The Pentagon report, “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” this month is warning that the “security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated” because of “an increase in effective insurgent attacks and higher ANDSF and Taliban casualties.”
It concluded: “Although the ANDSF maintain a significant capability advantage over the insurgency, insurgents are improving in their ability to find and exploit ANDSF vulnerabilities, making the security situation still fragile in key areas and at risk of deterioration in other places.”
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and military analyst, said the Taliban’s continued strength shows that the U.S. should never have made such a major troop and money investment, first by President George W. Bush, then by President Obama. He declared Afghanistan was the real war in the fight against al Qaeda.
“It’s a country caught in the 14th century, and unless we are willing to spend trillions of dollars and many more thousands of lives over the next 50 years, then I see no hope of bringing that country into the 21st century and ridding it of radical Islamists,” he said.
He said the proper approach is to station units in the region to contain terrorists in Afghanistan.
“Obama’s war is coming apart at the seams,” said Mr. Maginnis. “It would appear history will judge Obama for bad choices by surging in Afghanistan and prematurely abandoning Iraq just to have to go back again.”
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter underscored the pivotal time by visiting Afghanistan this month and appearing with its defense minister.
“The Taliban’s advances in some parts of the country, even if only temporary, underscore that this is a tough fight, and it’s far from over,” he said at a press conference. “It’s also a dynamic fight.”
“The reason that the minister and I are meeting here today is to make sure that, next year and every year thereafter, the Afghan forces get stronger and stronger and stronger,” he said. “They get more mobile, they have their own air power, they have their own intelligence, they have their own command and control. That’s the future for the Afghan security forces.”
The Taliban have strengthened their alliance with the notorious Haqqani network, a crime and terrorism family that has been able to penetrate Kabul’s defenses on occasion and set off explosives.
The Haqqani group has headquarters across the border in Pakistan, where it can avoid most U.S. attacks and operate with Pakistan’s tacit approval.
The Taliban brought in Haqqani network leader Siraj Haqqani as deputy to Taliban chieftain Mullah Mansour, which, the Pentagon report says, “signals that the Haqqani network will remain a critical and lethal component of the overall Taliban-led insurgency.”
On the battlefield, the army and police performance has been uneven. The Afghans are good at clearing an area of Taliban but has trouble holding territory once recaptured.
“They remain in a primarily defensive posture that limits their agility across the country,” the report said.
Still, the Pentagon analysis concludes, “Despite challenges this fighting season, the ANDSF have proven their willingness to fight and to learn from mistakes during their first year with full responsibility for securing the Afghan people.”
Among recent Taliban incursions:
• The September invasion and capture of Kunduz, a city of 300,000 north of Kabul and a key trade route. The Taliban captured the police and governor’s headquarters. But Afghan special forces reorganized and quickly retook the town. An embarrassment for the government of President Ashraf Ghani but a show of force by the locals with guidance from American special operations forces.
• An attack on the airport in Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban movement. Afghan security forces eventually repelled the invaders but took heavy losses. It showed again that the Taliban can organize and spring surprise attacks.
• The Taliban now control large sections of the Sangrin district, which falls, as does Kandahar, in the all-important Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.
Unlike past battles, there are no U.S. Marines or British combat forces or American air power to fight alongside the Afghans. The NATO command sent about 100 British troops to a military base near the town of Sangrin to advise the defenders who have been pleading with Kabul to send more help.
The Pentagon report points out another bad trend as Afghanistan has become home to a number of terrorist groups, not just the Taliban and al Qaeda. The newest could turn out to be the most ruthless.
The Islamic State, conquerors of land in Iraq and Syria with allies as far away as Nigeria and Libya, have materialized in Nangarhar province and by all accounts is attracting recruits, some of them from the Taliban.
The Pentagon says the Islamic State may one day use Afghanistan as a base to attack the U.S., just like al Qaeda did for the 9/11 attacks.
“The Islamic State has progressed from its initial exploratory phase to a point where they are openly fighting the Taliban for the establishment of a safe haven, and are becoming more operationally active,” the report states.
Mr. Carter acknowledged this challenge in Afghanistan.
“As groups like ISIL emerge on the battlefield, or al Qaeda seeks to re-establish a safe haven, we must be prepared to deter their growth and counter the threats they pose,” the defense secretary said. “We will be prepared to do that. They can never have a secure base here in Nangarhar or anywhere else in Afghanistan.”
An Afghan journalist then told Mr. Carter that the Americans are not helping the local security force fight the Islamic State. Mr. Carter answered, “They’re not going to be safe here in Nangarhar. And we’ll make sure, with our Afghan colleagues, that that is the case.”
It was the Taliban who took credit for the six American deaths Monday by an assassin on a motorbike rigged with an improvised explosive device.
The six were Air Force personnel on a security patrol outside Bagram Air Base. Four were agents of the Office of Special Investigations. The other two were security personnel in the Air National Guard.
Linda Card, an OSI spokeswoman, said, “OSI members and security forces personnel work as a joint team in ‘outside the wire’ joint patrol missions to provide security and protection for all U.S. military members deployed to hostile areas of the world. The four deceased OSI agents, as well as the two deceased security forces personnel, were on a routine security foot patrol outside Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan when their patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle.”