It’s easy to be as cynical as Moose. If U.S. and international forces can’t suppress the Taliban in this part of the country now, while still operating near the height of the Obama surge—which is ending as of this September—what’s going to happen when we all leave at the end of 2014? Already ISAF has written off Ghazni’s southern-most district, right on the Pakistan border, as hopelessly under Taliban control.
And yet there are other strong signs that this is not going to be 1992 to '96, when the Taliban gradually and brutally took control of an abandoned Afghanistan. The new Afghan army and police are expected to get at least $4 billion a year in ISAF funds—most of it from Washington—indefinite training and help from U.S. special operations, and by most accounts the Afghans are increasingly competent. The U.S. drone strike program will continue indefinitely, albeit likely under the CIA rather than the Pentagon, ensuring that the Mullah Omars of the future will not be eager to show their faces in downtown Kabul.
Areas like the eastern section of Afghanistan are unlikely to achieve complete peace. Funded by Pakistan’s intelligence agency just across the border, and possibly by sympathetic Islamists in the Arab world, the Taliban have a constant source of replenishment, like a toxic natural spring. But there is reason to think the Taliban can be contained at least to this troubled corner of Afghanistan. And that is the case the U.S. is making to its NATO allies at the forthcoming summit in Chicago—we need to be here for decades in some fashion, not just for a couple of more years.
“It’s a never-ending story,” said our Polish escort, as we waited out the mortar battle. Earlier in the day, in a round of interviews at the village, we had asked: Are the Taliban weaker, or just as strong? The answer was mixed. Yet it was also true that the mortar rounds missed their targets—the governor and, possibly, us--by hundreds of meters. “They are scared; they don’t come close” enough to be accurate, Wojcik said.
Gen. Daoud Shah Wafadar, the Afghan army commander in Ghazni province—who also spoke at the shura—told our visiting group that the Taliban were no longer a match for his forces. “The enemy is not capable of fighting with us face to face. The only thing they can do is threaten the people.”
That may be true, but at least in this recalcitrant portion of Afghanistan, it is a tactic that the Taliban still do very well—and there is little sign as yet that they can be forced to stop.