The US nears a deal to pullout of Afghanistan, but the Afghan Army is on the defensive

The US nears a deal to pullout of Afghanistan, but the Afghan Army is on the defensive

The woeful state of the regular Afghan forces has been widely seen as giving the Taliban a valuable edge in its negotiations with the United States, which have gone on for eight rounds in Doha,

Afghan government forces at Bala Hissar, a military base on a hilltop overlooking Kunduz, Afghanistan, that was captured by the Taliban during their takeover of the city in 2015, on March 7, 2017. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

By Rod Nordland and David Zucchino

As the United States appears to be nearing a deal with the Taliban on pulling its troops from Afghanistan, the country’s security forces are in their worst state in years — almost completely on the defensive in much of the country, according to local military commanders and civilian officials.

Afghan commanders vowed last year to take the offensive, rather than go on fighting a static “checkpoint war.” But in most major battlegrounds, the bulk of the regular Afghan forces are still holed up in fortified bases and outposts. Most offensive operations have been left to small numbers of Afghan and U.S. Special Operations soldiers, backed by both countries’ air forces.

The woeful state of the regular Afghan forces has been widely seen as giving the Taliban a valuable edge in its negotiations with the United States, which have gone on for eight rounds in Doha, Qatar, and are believed to be near a conclusion. An announcement could come as early as Tuesday, but also may be delayed, perhaps for weeks.


An analysis of more than 2,300 combat deaths of government forces, compiled in daily casualty reports by The New York Times from January through July, found that more than 87% occurred during Taliban attacks on bases, checkpoints or command centers. These numbers indicate that the Taliban can attack many such bases almost at will.

During that seven-month period, the Taliban mounted more than 280 such attacks — an average of more than one a day.

“Police and soldiers are stuck in their bases,” said Abdul Aziz Beg, head of the district council in Badghis province in western Afghanistan. “The Taliban are killing security forces easily, but no one pays attention.”

Local government officials in several provinces said the only ground operations against the Taliban were being carried out by the U.S.-backed Afghan special forces.

“They come here, kill some people and arrest some, and that’s it. When they leave, the Taliban come back” and kill regular troops in their bases, said Rahmatullah Qaisari, a district governor in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan.

“To make people happy, security officials announce operations,” said Tor Khan Zarifi, a tribal elder in Herat province in the north. “These operations are kind of showoff — they don’t have any impact.”

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, acknowledged that the Afghans were increasingly relying on elite units such as commandos and special police units to attack the Taliban. He said regular Afghan units still sustained most of their casualties while trying to hold on to territory anchored by bases and checkpoints.

Dan Coats, the U.S. director of national intelligence, told Congress this year that outside urban areas, “Afghan security suffers from a large number of forces being tied down in defensive missions, mobility shortfalls and a lack of reliable forces to hold recaptured territory.”

FILE– The bodies of soldiers killed during a Taliban offensive are lined up at the governor’s office in Sang-e-Masha, in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province, Nov. 11, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Afghanistan’s minister of defense, Asadullah Khalid, said that since taking command in December he had worked to shift regular forces out of their defensive posture.

“Their mindset has changed from defensive to offensive,” Khalid said. “Let’s be clear: These bases are not for us to just stay there and sleep there. They are going out on the offense.”

But Khalid also said that some regular forces had sustained high casualty rates this year during Taliban attacks on checkpoints and bases, in areas where the militants were not threatened by government offensives.

“We are trying to reverse that situation,” he said.

Only about 3% of the 2,300 deaths in the casualty reports compiled by The Times this year occurred during offensive combat operations carried out by regular forces. Among those were troops killed in Taliban ambushes after being sent to reinforce besieged bases or checkpoints.

Roughly 10% of the deaths occurred in other actions, away from bases and checkpoints. They were attributed to roadside bombs; attacks on convoys; snipers; insider attacks; friendly fire; and ambushes of soldiers or police who were on food runs, driving to work, in their homes, in bazaars, at weddings, in mosques or in clinics.

The casualty reports are compiled daily by Times reporters across Afghanistan. They are based on interviews with local government and security officials, district council members, village elders, local members of parliament and other sources.

According to the Ministry of Defense’s own combat reports, roughly seven times as many offensive operations have been carried out by commandos as by regular security forces. And the number of Afghan Air Force strikes has typically been far higher than the number of operations by regular forces.

For July, the ministry reported 2,825 operations by commandos and 651 airstrikes, compared with 409 operations by regular forces. Khalid said that in many operations, commandos were backed by regular forces.

A checkpoint at the frontline between Taliban and government forces in the Archi district of Kunduz on July 10, 2017. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

The ministry said the July operations had killed more than 2,400 insurgents. As of Aug. 7, nearly 4,800 insurgents had been killed this year, said Gen. Khoshal Sadat, a defense ministry official. Both sides routinely inflate enemy casualty reports.

The ministry reports do not mention government casualties. After May 2017, the Afghan military stopped releasing its casualty figures. The information has since been treated as classified by the U.S. military at the Afghans’ request.

By all accounts, Afghan security forces outnumber the insurgents. Yet the casualty numbers have been steadily rising among soldiers and police who were guarding bases and outposts, rather than engaged in actual battles.

On June 30, for instance, 58 members of the security forces were reported to have been killed in two separate Taliban attacks — on a military base in the southern province of Kandahar, and on two checkpoints in Kunduz province in the north.

Asked about those incidents, Khalid said the Taliban had suffered higher casualties than had government forces, and that they had failed to capture the base or the checkpoints.

Three weeks later, on July 25, the Taliban briefly overran two military bases in Takhar province in northern Afghanistan. Local officials said up to 37 troops were killed.

Increasingly, the only Afghan units truly on the offensive are special forces commandos, who often partner with U.S. Special Operations troops for combined ground and air operations.


“The weight of the Afghan war is mostly on the shoulders of commandos and the air force — they are doing all the offensive operations,” said Gharzai Khowakhozhai, a former army general and a military analyst in Kabul, the capital. “Regular forces are not doing their job properly.”