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Afghanistan in Flux

Oct. 9, 2015

Security in Afghanistan is worsening as the role of the United States comes under fresh scrutiny. President Barack Obama has apologized for a tragic airstrike on a hospital during the battle for the northern city of Kunduz.

Taliban fighters scored a major victory late last month when they seized Kunduz. It was the first time they had captured a major city since the Taliban government was driven out of power nearly 14 years ago. Just days later, Afghan forces swept into the city in a bid to retake it, and Kunduz remains a focal point of fighting between the insurgents and Afghan forces backed by the US military.

On October 3, those US forces launched an airstrike on Kunduz, hitting a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders and killing 22 patients and staff. The medical group says 33 people remain unaccounted for. The top US commander in Afghanistan described the hit as an error. "The hospital was mistakenly struck. We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility,” said General John Campbell.

General Campbell also suggested that US troops may need to stay longer than planned, calling on Washington to review its plan to withdraw its forces by the end of next year.

Professor Barnett Rubin from New York University joined NEWSROOM TOKYO anchor Sho Beppu to analyze the current situation in Afghanistan. Rubin has advised the United Nations and the US State Department on the topic.

Beppu: How do you think the Taliban was able to temporarily capture the city of Kunduz?

Rubin: First, the Taliban in northern Afghanistan have been reinforced by central Asian militants who were pushed out of Pakistan by the Pakistan army. Second, their ability to come into the city and take it over for several days is mainly due not so much to their own strength, although they were very well organized, but to the fact that the security forces in that area are very divided and factionalized and poorly led.

Beppu: Was it the weakness on the Afghan side that led to Kunduz’s capture?

Rubin: That’s what most observers think, and even before the capture took place, there was a lot of reporting about problems with the security forces in that area.

Beppu: Regarding the hospital bombing that President Obama apologized for, this is not the first time that civilians have been killed and injured by bombs. If these kinds of events continue, anti-American sentiment could spread. How much of a detriment could that be for America pursuing its current policies there?

Rubin: Of course, the bombing of a medical facility is potentially a very serious war crime, and this is more serious than most of those other incidents, although we still don’t know exactly what happened. But the more the war goes on, the more it does create those resentments. Data that is collected by the United Nations shows that the vast majority of deaths of civilians in the conflict have been caused by the Taliban, the insurgents. But it’s a fact that people are much more resentful of fatalities caused by foreigners.

Afghanistan is in flux with a series of important events leading to the latest spate of fighting. In September last year, voters elected a new president with Ashraf Ghani winning on a promise to rebuild the broken state.

"I will do all I can to bring peace and stability to the nation,” the new leader announced. Ghani said he would not rely solely on military force to beat the insurgents and promised to seek dialogue with the Taliban.

Those talks started in July. The militant group had ignored former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s calls for a roundtable. Officials at the Pakistani foreign ministry organized the latest dialogue and they say the two sides have agreed to hold further discussion to achieve permanent peace.

Just after the talks took place, the Afghan government revealed that the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had been dead for two years. The Taliban named Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as its new supreme leader. His appointment has sparked harsh internal conflicts over the selection process and the capital Kabul has been hit by a series of bomb attacks for which the Taliban has claimed responsibility.

Afghan people are being caught in the crossfire, with 5,000 civilians killed or injured during the first half of this year. The casualty rates are the worst in seven years.

Beppu: Professor Rubin, in light of this increase in civilian casualties and the spread of chaos, do you think that America should go ahead with the current plan to withdraw forces by the end of next year, or do you think there should be some revision?

Rubin: There are two ways of looking at it. One is, if you want to succeed in Afghanistan, then probably they should delay it somewhat, until the negotiations progress further and so on. President Obama has a different type of decision to make. He has to look around the entire world and see all the demands that there are on the resources of the United States, and know that eventually those forces are going to leave Afghanistan. Whether it’s now or in a couple of years, will it make that much difference?

Beppu: Regarding the Taliban and the Ghani administration, there were some hopes in the summer when they started to talk, but it didn’t go well. Why do you think it didn’t lead to a more positive outcome? What were both sides trying to achieve?

Rubin: That was just the beginning. The negotiations hadn’t started yet, and then they were disrupted by the revelation that Mohammad Omar had died, and then the Taliban had to choose a new leader. Until they have new leader who is consolidated in his position, it’s not really possible to go on with the talks. I’m sure that all sides are still committed to it. There are also some problems in relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan which have to be resolved first.

Beppu: Do you think the fact the talks didn’t go well reflects problems inside the Taliban, or inside the Ghani administration?

Rubin: I wouldn’t say that the talks didn’t go well. They hardly started at all. It’s a very complicated situation. It’s not just the government and the Taliban, it’s also Afghanistan and Pakistan, the United States still having troops there as well. Many of the Taliban don’t agree with talking to the Afghan government, so at this point we have to give it some time, especially as the military season will be over soon.

Beppu: Do we really have time to give as the Islamic State militant group spreads its influence?

Rubin: I don’t have very good information, and I don’t know if anyone does, but my impression is that the Islamic State is not spreading very rapidly in Afghanistan. There are one or two pockets of fighters. It’s important to bear in mind that the Taliban has issued a religious ruling that it is obligatory to fight against the Islamic State, and they are doing that.

Beppu: Putting things in a broader perspective, Afghanistan is one big problem for the current Obama administration, but he has other problems with Syria where his plan to train and equip rebels is not working well. President Obama did have success with the Iranian nuclear agreement. How do you assess his Middle East policies overall?

Rubin: I don’t think it’s really fair to evaluate President Obama’s record in terms of what’s happening in the Middle East because what he does, what the United States does, is just one small factor. Syria is not just a problem for the United States. It’s not just the United States’ policy that has failed there. Everyone’s policies have failed there. The difficulty is that it’s such a complex situation. If it becomes uncontrollable as it seems in Syria, the United States as the dominant world power gets blamed for it. On the other hand, if you try to analyze what the United States could do that would make the situation better, rather than worse, it’s very difficult to identify anything. It may be that President Obama has taken the least bad option by not getting involved. We’ll see how things go for Russia and Mr Putin now that they have put troops on the ground.