Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by Kimberly Abbott, Communications Director for North America at the International Crisis Group. Visit crisisgroup.org for more information on Afghanistan. Click here for a podcast of this conversation.
In a major speech to the American public tonight, President Obama is expected to announce the beginning of the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the transfer of security to the Afghan National Army.
But if anything, the insurgency has only grown stronger in recent months. Insurgent activity has now spread beyond traditional strongholds in the south to districts surrounding the capital, exposing the slow erosion of security in the Afghan heartland.
To discuss the implications of US withdrawal for the evolving Afghan insurgency, I’m joined by Candace Rondeaux, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Afghanistan. Candace is on the line from Kabul.
What do you expect to hear from President Obama tonight and what is the feeling on the ground in Afghanistan about his speech?
Candace Rondeaux: This is obviously a pivotal moment for both Afghans and Americans and for the world at large. The discussion around the withdrawal of troops has been going on now for 18 months—really, since the surge began—and expectations are very high that the number Obama announces today will be quite significant, perhaps as large as 30,000 by 2012.
In terms of the reaction on the ground, already we are starting to see signs of tension. Afghans are extremely nervous. There is a lot of anxiety about what the withdrawal will mean in terms of stability in the country.
The number of assassinations in the country has gone up in the last couple of months, and in the last week we have seen a number of prominent non-Pashtun politicians targeted by the Taliban. We see this as a direct reaction to the growing anxiety inside Kabul, inside political circles, over the withdrawal.
I know you have a new report on Afghanistan coming out, and in it you mention an increase in attacks. Can you give us a broader look at how the insurgency has changed in the last few months and how the withdrawal will affect insurgents?
The surge has brought with it a number of changes. There has been some progress on the ground, but it has been very fragile. Across the country, the insurgency has really gained a lot of territory and has been able to strike at targets on a regular basis with impunity. What this shows is that the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and Hizb-e–Islami are growing in strength, but also that the support for the insurgency is growing, in large part because the government is so weak.
So are you really saying that the surge has backfired outside the capital?
There are clear signs that the surge has backfired outside the capitol. In areas close to Kabul such as Wardak, Logar — these are big provinces with large populations — you see the insurgency growing. You see them connecting with government officials.
There is a great deal of collusion between the government and the insurgency. What you have today is a situation where an organized crime network has essentially taken over the state. You have state capture in the largest possible sense — and the insurgency has taken advantage of this. They have gained so much ground, and they plan to extract so much more over the next two years as withdrawal takes place, that we can expect a lot more violence and bloodshed at a much more rapid tempo.
What has this meant for the ordinary citizens in Afghanistan? Can you describe their lives now compared to a decade ago?
Many Afghans feel pressed on all sides. They don’t trust the government, they don’t trust U.S. troops, they don’t trust the insurgency, and yet when it comes down to it, the insurgency oftentimes has the greatest influence in many of these local, rural areas, particularly in the areas around Kabul, and so they end up capitulating, essentially, to rule by terror.
I think that what we have seen from the counterinsurgency strategy is that a lot of Afghans are unclear about U.S. intentions in Afghanistan. They often say we don’t know which messages to believe. You hear Robert Gates say one thing, and you hear President Obama say another. This confuses the population a great deal. That has given a lot of leverage to insurgent groups and criminal networks to operate very freely. Without having the support of the people, U.S. and NATO troops and Afghan government troops simply cannot make the kind of headway they need to in the counterinsurgency campaign.
Given what you just said, is there anything President Obama can say tonight to quell their fears? And going forward, is there anything the U.S. can do to change this dynamic—or is it a lost cause?
The White House needs to send a signal today that they are not going to abandon Afghanistan. That they are in it for the long haul. That they mean it when they say they are interested in a long-term strategic partnership with the Afghan government.
It also needs to send the message that reconciliation with the Taliban does not need to be capitulation to the Taliban. I think that this is an extremely important time for Obama to send the message that he supports civil society groups here, that he supports the growth of a democratic Afghanistan, that he does not want to see the return of a conservative pro-Islamist militant Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban.
Any other message will result in further anxiety and will be the next step in the road towards civil war.