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Asia Expert: Taliban's Resurgence Threatens Afghanistan's Stability


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The war in Afghanistan intensified in 2015, even as the conflict in Syria and battles in Iraq got more attention. The Taliban has resurfaced in Afghanistan and now controls a fifth of the country. Islamic State offshoots have emerged in Afghanistan and al-Qaida training camps have been established in several parts of the country. Afghan forces have suffered heavy casualties and President Obama has halted the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, prolonging the American role in a war that has gone on for 14 years. Andrew Wilder is the vice president of Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace and he joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Why do you think the Taliban's gained so much ground this year?

WILDER: Well, I think the most obvious reason is that, you know, two years ago we had 140,000 U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan, and today we have about 13,000, of which about just under 10,000 are U.S. forces. And so when you withdraw very well-trained and equipped troops from Afghanistan, there's going to be a consequence.

SIMON: You paint it as a failure of U.S. policy.

WILDER: In part. I think there's many contributing factors. I was actually not necessarily a fan of the surge of going up to 100,000 in the first place, but I would have cautioned against drawing down from that level down to under 10,000 in a very short period of time.

SIMON: I haven't been there since 2002, but I remember Afghans speaking very movingly about their contempt for the Taliban and remembering public beheadings and executions and the way they were forced to live as prisoners in their own homes.

WILDER: Yeah, and I think largely there's still not a large popular support for the Taliban coming back to power. But I think where there's been a failure is on the Afghan government side, a failure of leadership, you know, both under President Karzai where he adopted a leadership style of backing sort of corrupt and predatory local leaders and many Afghans at the local level are sort of caught between, you know, corrupt and predatory local government officials and the Taliban, neither of whom which they like.

SIMON: Mr. Wilder, when you talk about that it might've been unwise for so many U.S. troops to leave and how there has to be a continuation of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, I can imagine a lot of Americans hearing that at home and saying wait a minute. We've been there 14 years. Why?

WILDER: Well, I think it's important to go back to the reason why we went to Afghanistan. We went there because of 9/11 and, you know, transnational terrorist groups, namely al-Qaida, at that time were based in Afghanistan from which they planned and launched some of the attacks on the U.S. homeland. I think if we pull out of Afghanistan too quickly and see the collapse of the state again and a return back to the anarchic situation which we had in the 1990s, you will see Afghanistan become a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups again.

SIMON: And what about those Americans who say when does the country stand on its own?

WILDER: That's one of the areas where I think, you know, political leadership needs to be honest with the American public that there isn't a quick fix solution to these situations. But there's a devastatingly high cost if you pull out prematurely and allow states to collapse, which we kind of saw in Iraq or in Syria or in Libya. And Afghanistan is not at that stage. We have a government in Afghanistan now that is very pro-Western, reform-oriented, unfortunately very weak. And we also have Afghan National Security Forces that are fighting very hard. I mean, we've had over 7,000 killed fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. So it's not just the U.S. that is fighting there.

SIMON: In November, we saw Afghans in the street who protested the beheadings by ISIS of ethnic Hazara. Does this signal a new political engagement by a lot of Afghans?

WILDER: I think there is growing unhappiness, you know, about the deteriorating security situation and as well as the sharp deterioration in the economy. And I think that those demonstrations were a manifestation of that. I think it's probably too early to conclude that it's part of a broader pattern because Afghans fear instability more than anything else. The most notable thing about that demonstration is it remained largely peaceful.

SIMON: Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, thanks so much for being with us.

WILDER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.