By Miles Amoore and Christina Lamb
THE two men should be sworn enemies. One is a Taliban commander waging what he says is a holy war against foreign soldiers in Afghanistan. The other is an Afghan army officer trained and paid by Nato to fight the Taliban.
Yet rather than do battle, the two men have forged a secret alliance. In the area of Ghazni province where both are based, just an hour’s drive south of Kabul, they collaborate to loot Nato supply convoys, dividing up the proceeds. They even share intelligence about military operations.
“We lost seven men in an ambush when I first arrived at the base,” explained Afghan army lieutenant Mohammad Wali, who commands 18 men. “So I thought, why risk my life when there’s another way?”
These are the security forces on which Nato strategy depends as world leaders gather in Chicago today to set in motion an end to the alliance’s biggest military operation — if not an end to the war itself.
The drawdown — officials avoid the word withdrawal — is based on handing over security to an Afghan army able to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into civil war when most of the 130,000-strong Nato-led force pulls out in 2014.
Last week, the alliance announced the transfer of another chunk of territory to Afghan control and soon three-quarters of the Afghan population will come under the protection of the Afghan security forces (ANSF).
In its latest report to the US Congress, the Pentagon claims 40% of operations are already led by Afghans. But Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at the Brookings Institution, who visited Afghanistan last week, said almost all were simple operations.
Revelations of secret ceasefire agreements between Taliban insurgents and Nato-trained Afghan soldiers appear to undermine Nato’s confidence that the latter can hold the line.
Nato handed over control of Ghazni city, the provincial capital, to Afghan security forces at the end of last year. Last month the Taliban closed down 100 schools in the province.
Wali said he had been approached by the local Taliban commander six months ago. Meeting in a bazaar, the pair agreed a ceasefire and a plan to ambush Nato supply convoys on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, which passes through the province.
“The plan is simple,” said Wali. “When the Taliban attack the convoys we stay in our bases. If the Taliban capture something valuable then they share it with us later.”
Mohammad Hassan, the local Taliban commander, said he had attacked dozens of convoys this way, capturing fuel, ammunition, vehicles, laptops and water bound for Nato troops. A good haul can earn as much as $30,000 (£19,000).
The Afghan army adds money to the pot. Wali said he charged private security companies, which guard the supply convoys, an average of $40,000 to chase away the Taliban.
“Sometimes these companies run to us when they’re attacked,” he said. “We agree on a price and then we leave our base. We shoot in the direction of the Taliban and the insurgents run away. Then we share the money with the Taliban later.”
About a fifth of Nato supply convoys in Afghanistan come under attack, making them a lucrative source of income for the Taliban. Both Nato and the Afghan government play down the significance of these ceasefires and informal agreements, arguing that they occur only in a handful of districts.
However, Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Davis, an American officer who recently returned from a year in Afghanistan, said: “In almost every combat outpost I visited, troopers reported to me they had intercepted radio or other traffic between [Afghan forces] and local Taliban making mini non-aggression deals.”
Even Nato’s own internal assessments state that there has been a “conspicuous increase” in intelligence that points to collusion between the Taliban and the Nato-trained Afghan police force or army.
Collusion with the Taliban is just one of the factors threatening to erode the ability of Afghanistan’s security forces to keep the Taliban at bay once Nato combat forces depart.
This year has seen a rise in “green on blue” incidents similar to the one last weekend in which Afghan policemen killed two British soldiers in the southern province of Helmand.
There have already been 22 such incidents this year, compared with 35 in the whole of last year. On March 1 in Sanghisar, two American soldiers were killed when the Afghan soldiers who fight alongside them turned on the men.
Having formed a strategy based on building up the Afghan security forces, Nato is now discussing cutting their size by a third when it leaves, from 352,000 to 228,500, starting in 2015. Iraq, which has a population of similar size, has 670,000 security forces.
The official justification is that Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are down 20% this year. “We broke the Taliban momentum,” said President Barack Obama on a visit to Kabul earlier this month.
Yet, although there has been progress in some areas such as the south of the country, the Taliban remain active in the east, where the powerful Haqqani network is based, and are expected to attempt a comeback this summer in the south.
The US Senate and House Intelligence Committees returned from a recent trip saying that the Taliban were gaining ground. “I think we’d both say that what we’ve found is that the Taliban is stronger,” said Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who heads the Senate committee.
The motive for reducing the Afghan forces seems to be to bring down the annual costs from $6.6 billion to $4.1 billion at a time of economic crisis in the West. There are fears, too, that the announcement by François Hollande, the new French president, that he will keep his election promise to withdraw all troops this year could lead to a rush for the exit.
The US will reduce its forces to 68,000 by September. The rest will leave by the end of 2014 but no plans have yet been drawn up for a timetable.
While no one admits defeat, what officials define as success has changed. Gone is any talk of cohesive central government, development or nation-building. The objective now is maintaining containable levels of violence, a situation referred to in the White House as “Afghan good enough”.
“The only really important standard is some level of security so Al-Qaeda can’t come back,” said O’Hanlon. “Frankly anything else comes under the category “nice to have, not essential”.
The Obama administration had hoped to use the summit to announce significant progress in peace negotiations with the Taliban. With negotiations at a standstill, they now hope nobody will mention them.
The biggest elephant in the room is Pakistan, which refuses to end safe havens for the Taliban on its territory. For almost six months, it has been denying passage to Nato supply convoys in protest at America’s refusal to apologise for the killing of 24 Pakistani troops in bombings last November.
On the ground, Taliban commanders such as Hassan joke that they are way ahead of their squabbling leaders.
“We have made peace before them,” he said with a smile, referring to the ceasefire arrangement with his counterpart in the Afghan army.