Rod Nordland has been reporting on Afghanistan’s travails since well before the American-led invasion that booted the Taliban from power in 2001. For the past eight years, he has been a correspondent and then Kabul bureau chief for The New York Times, which has expanded its presence in the country even as many other news organizations have withdrawn.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Two wars are convulsing Afghanistan, the war of blood and guts, and the war of truth and lies. Both have been amassing casualties at a remarkable rate recently.
The first is that messy war in which, just in the past week, more than 40 high school students were blown to pieces in their classroom, hundreds of bodies were left abandoned for a week in the streets of Ghazni city or dumped in a river, and two important Afghan Army units were destroyed, almost to the last soldier.
The other is the war in which most of that, according to official accounts, did not happen — or at least was not as bad as it sounded. Not until late on the third day of the Taliban’s assault on Ghazni did President Ashraf Ghani’s aides even inform him of the desperation level there, two government officials said privately; Mr. Ghani himself later confirmed that publicly. By then the Taliban had control of nearly every neighborhood.
Government spokesmen, confronted with a crisis, basically responded by asserting that everything was fine. They repeatedly denied that Taliban fighters were in control of Ghazni. By day six, when the insurgents no longer were in control, official denials converged with the truth.
The American military’s chief spokesman, Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, insisted there was no big problem — just insurgents looking for “inconsequential headlines.”
Discerning fact from fiction is challenging in any war, of course. But in Afghanistan, where most of the population has known only war, narratives are often total contradictions of one another.
How We Reported
We had a reporter inside Ghazni, canvassing neighborhoods. Although the country’s cellphone networks failed in Ghazni, making it hard to check the official narrative, we also found people who could get a cell signal on the outskirts or upper floors of Ghazni buildings, or who fled and brought their stories to us.
One of our reporters, Fahim Abed, got through on the phone to the director of Ghazni Hospital, Baz Mohammad Hemat, who spoke from a hospital floor awash in blood, bodies stacked in storerooms because the morgue was full. Dr. Hemat counted 113 dead on day two, and more arriving hourly. Most were in uniform, belying official claims of minimal casualties.
In Ajristan District, our Afghan reporters heard that disaster had befallen an elite Army commando unit defending that remote area. As our reporter Jawad Sukhanyar called around to officials in the surrounding areas, he found that the Ministry of Defense was doing the same thing; they didn’t know what had happened either.
It turned out that insurgent suicide bombers destroyed the commando company’s base, and as the defenders fled, Taliban fighters picked them off. Out of a base force of more than 100 commandos, police and militia fighters, only 22 survived, fleeing into the desert with no water or food.
Jawad reached a surviving commando, Sgt. Eid Mohammad, 30, on the phone. He described how they had drunk one another’s urine while fleeing pro-Taliban Kuchi nomads.
The sergeant also repeated a version of something widely heard in the 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces actively at war now: “No one from the government gave us anything. All we got was promises, no action.”
That was true 300 miles north of Ghazni, at a place called Chinese Camp, where an Afghan Army company struggled through three days of heavy Taliban attacks, begging for resupply and reinforcements, and especially air support, which were promised, but never arrived.
Our reporter Najim Rahim had been on the phone every day for a week with the defenders, including their captain, who had become Najim’s friend. On Sunday someone else answered the captain’s phone. “I started crying when I heard he was killed,” Najim said.
By Tuesday the defenders at Chinese Camp were almost out of ammunition, they told Najim. Half were dead or wounded and the rest surrendered except for a lieutenant who escaped. Najim managed to track him down, so we knew what had happened.
Afghan officials at the Ministry of Defense said they could not provide an account of Chinese Camp casualties. “We’re working on figuring out how many soldiers were there and when we do, we’ll share it,” said Ghafoor Ahmad Jawed, a ministry spokesman.
Lots more happened this past week, more than we could cover except briefly. On Monday, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan border police unit defending the frontier with Tajikistan in northern Takhar Province, killing 12. An Afghan National Army unit was destroyed in northern Baghlan Province, where officials admitted that 39 soldiers were killed, two wounded and two escaped.
Who is winning?
This is often the first question arriving diplomats ask. Every year there’s a new group of them — most countries do not allow them to stay more than a year, sometimes two. They are usually well briefed in the official narrative that things are improving. But many spend their entire tours inside a fortified embassy.
On paper, the Afghan government and its 40-plus international coalition allies, predominantly Americans, have all the advantages over the insurgents. The Afghan military and police have an authorized strength of 350,000, their payroll funded by international partners. The American military now number 14,000, a mix of trainers, advisers and Special Operations members.
The Afghans also have their own small air force, and extensive support from American drones, jet bombers and helicopter gunships.
The Taliban have been estimated by American military officials to number 20,000 to 40,000 active fighters, an estimate that has not changed much for years even though the Afghan government claims it has been killing nearly a thousand a month.
The true size of the Afghan military is difficult to assess. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, an American government watchdog agency, reported in July that the Afghan National Army was at 86 percent of its authorized strength, and that all security forces, police, army and specialized units totaled 310,000. The agency also said the attrition rate for the Afghan National Army was running at 2 percent a month. If confirmed, that would translate into roughly a quarter of the total per year.
Full data on attrition, which includes desertions, failure to re-enlist and casualties, was now secret, the agency said, a decision taken by the American military, which the agency criticized.
Also classified as secret since last year has been the true casualty toll for the Afghan military. When those figures were last released by Afghan government officials, in 2016, more than 6,000 soldiers and police officers were being killed annually. The outgoing American military commander at the end of 2014, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, called the Afghan government losses, then about 5,000 fatalities a year, “unsustainable.”
Many Afghan officials and military officers say privately that the losses have worsened since then. “Casualties among Afghan forces are higher than they have ever been,” said the retired general Atiqullah Amarkhel, a military analyst in Kabul.
If the death toll of the past week — more than 400 Afghan soldiers and police officers — were to continue for a year, the annual total would be triple the worst known year so far.
The Afghan military and its American allies have officially shifted their strategy to one that emphasizes protecting population centers — places like Ghazni city — rather than holding onto territory — places like Ghormach and Ajristan Districts, where those army units were overwhelmed last week. The military has been slow to make that shift, however.
The Taliban vowed this year to retake cities and provinces, but so far they have taken no provinces and three cities, but only briefly. And most of Afghanistan’s population lives under government, not Taliban, control.
Even by territorial standards, according to the American military’s reckoning, the Afghan security forces have been doing well lately. When the international coalition reduced its 140,000-soldier presence, handing security responsibility to Afghan forces, the insurgents quickly expanded their control throughout the country. But in the past year, the military said, that expansion has been halted.
As of July 30, the government controlled 58.5 percent of the country, the insurgents 19.4 percent, with the remaining 22 percent contested, according to the American military.
Other information raises serious questions about the accuracy of that data. In Ghazni Province, for example, only one of its 19 districts was listed by the American military as under insurgent control. But local officials said last week that only three Ghazni districts were clearly government-controlled.
In northern Kunduz Province, and in southern Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul Provinces, most districts are listed as under government control or contested. But in none of them would it be safe for a government official to leave the provincial capital without a heavily armed escort.
Last week supporters of the Afghan government criticized reporting by The New York Times on the conflict, with some calling it The Taliban Times and questioning the casualty counts. One of our reporters, Fatima Faizi, responded by uploading on Facebook excerpts from quotations from government officials — the sources for those figures. Fatima is from Ghazni and at the time her cousin was among those missing in the fighting there. (He was later found, wounded but safe.).
The government’s efforts at message management often collide with an inclination by many ordinary Afghans and local officials to speak their minds. They are often the best sources for information.
When phone service was restored in Ghazni and we finally reached Mohammad Arif Noori, the spokesman for the governor, he did not try to obscure what had just happened. There were too few security forces in the city, he said, and they were using outdated equipment. “The reason most parts of Ghazni city collapsed was a lack of coordination between police and N.D.S. forces,” he said, referring to the National Directorate for Security, a paramilitary intelligence service.
Safe Is a Relative Term
Even parts of the country considered safe have been badly affected. Take Bamian Province, home of the standing Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban. Bamian attracted a range of foreign aid groups with ambitious projects: a ski slope, to promote tourism; a girl’s bicycle team.
It is no longer possible to go there safely. The last airline that served Bamian, Kam Air, stopped flying this year after many foreign crew members were killed during an insurgent attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel.
Both roads into Bamian are blocked by Taliban units, in Wardak Province and in Parwan Province’s Ghorband Valley. “The government has no will to clear the Taliban from Ghorband valley,” said Ghulam Bahauddin Jilani, the Parwan provincial council chairman.
In provinces like Oruzgan where the insurgents have much more support, the situation is even more difficult. Amir Mohammad Barakzai, head of the provincial council there, said officials have asked in vain for more resources to fight the insurgents, who are now are on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Tarinkot. “The Taliban are winning this war,” Mr. Barakzai said.
In Helmand Province, where the Taliban dominates, Bashir Ahmad Shakirn, head of the security committee, said corruption is the main reason the government does so poorly. “I don’t believe the Taliban are stronger than us, what makes them stronger is the incompetence of our officials,” he said. “Their priority is not winning the war but their personal benefits.”
Two Helmand army corps commanders in a row were replaced and charged with corruption in 2016 and 2017.
The Afghan security forces and the police receive about $6 billion annually, most of it from the United States. But corruption eats away at that money, as reflected in the constant complaints by local units that they are underfed and outgunned.
“If we compare the anti-government forces with Afghan security forces, the Taliban are better equipped, have more resources, and have access to modern weapons,” said a councilman, Abdul Wali, in Logar Province. “If things continue like this, the Taliban will be the winners.”
How This Ends
Nesar Ahmad Mehari is the spokesman for the governor of western Farah Province, where the capital city, Farah, was overrun by the Taliban for a day in May. Things are better now, he said, as American troops fight with Afghan commandos. But other officials say that in some neighborhoods, insurgents walk around freely. “I think no one will win this war,” Mr. Mehari said. “We have seen only destruction and human losses from both sides since 17 years and this will continue for years to come with the same bloodshed.”
American commanders have long since stopped talking about winning in Afghanistan. None see how 14,000 American troops can achieve what 110,000 could not.
Taliban leaders have always insisted that as long as any American troops remained in Afghanistan, they would negotiate peace only with the Americans. But American officials had insisted on an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led process.”
Aides to President Trump, who once called the Afghanistan war a total disaster, have moved to authorize such talks. A State Department official met in July with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar, according to Taliban officials.
In the past, Afghan officials have opposed that sort of American role, but apparently no longer. “As President Ghani has indicated that he’s ready to pursue something without conditions, that speaks for itself,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the American military’s Central Command, when asked about American-initiated talks during a visit here on July 23. “Everything can be on the table here as we move forward with this Afghan-led process.”
In June, the Afghan government and the Taliban declared separate cease-fires, which overlapped for the Eid holiday that ended Ramadan. The cease-fire was so successful that no violent incidents broke out between Taliban and government sides. (There were some suicide attacks by their mutual enemy, the Islamic State.)
Insurgents came into towns and cities and mingled with locals in a remarkable outpouring of pro-peace sentiment by people on both sides, who were taking selfies with one another. Even women came out to see the insurgents, who once had hounded them off the streets. It was a moment many hope to see repeated, and President Ghani has offered another cease-fire for the Eid al-Adha holiday that begins Tuesday.
Some analysts think the Taliban’s remarkable push on so many fronts in the past week may actually be an effort by the insurgents to gain as much ground as possible before a cease-fire and any further steps toward peace.
“They can join the peace process in a stronger position, and show they are not doing it due to military pressure,” said Intizar Khadim, an Afghan political analyst.
Others fear that Ghazni and the bloody past week may have made peace prospects dimmer than ever. The final death toll in Ghazni, a senior official told us, was 155 police and soldiers, 60 to 70 civilians, and 430 insurgents. As many as 200 security forces died elsewhere around the country last week. That left thousands of relatives and friends with reasons to harbor hatred.
On the Taliban side, supporters may well be wary of people like Col. Farid Ahmad Mashal, the Ghazni police chief, who posted his own photo on Facebook with the corpses of Taliban fighters. “Do not show any mercy to the enemy,” he wrote on Facebook.