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Afghan Forces Struggle in Increasingly Deadly Fight

FILE - Afghan National Army soldiers stand in formation following weeks of heavy clashes with Taliban fighters in Dahna-e-Ghori district, Baghlan province, Afghanistan, Mar. 15, 2016.
FILE - Afghan National Army soldiers stand in formation following weeks of heavy clashes with Taliban fighters in Dahna-e-Ghori district, Baghlan province, Afghanistan, Mar. 15, 2016.

Ja Jaan, a member of the Afghan national police, was traveling home from his job in the provincial capital of southern Uruzgan province to spend a few days off with his family when he came under attack from the Taliban.

“I was armed, and I knew that I was going to be killed. In a split second I decided to engage them,” Jaan said. “We exchanged fire, and I got injured a few minutes into the firefight. Luckily, my check post was not that far, and reinforcements arrived to help me. The insurgents took off after my friends arrived.”

Jaan was injured in the neck. After some emergency first aid, he was driven about two and half hours to a hospital in neighboring Kandahar province where he went through multiple surgeries. Jaan survived and returned to his job on the front lines of Afghanistan's war.

Many of Jaan's colleagues have not been so lucky. Afghan security forces have faced steep challenges since foreign troops disengaged from front-line fighting in 2014.

Worrying statistics

U.S. military analysts said in a report earlier this year that the government lost control or influence of nearly five percent of its territory between January and May of 2016. A top U.S. commander said Afghan forces suffered more than 900 fatalities in July of this year alone.

The Afghan government does not publish casualty numbers of its forces on a regular basis. However, the U.S. Defense Department reported a 27 percent increase in Afghan security forces casualties between January and November of 2015 compared with the same period in 2014. A more recent report published this June said the casualties continue to increase, without specifying exact figures.

The same report said that 42 percent of Afghans say that security is worse now than during the time of the Taliban.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, minister of interior during the previous administration of president Hamid Karzai’s and current professor at National Defense University in Washington, D.C., said some of this can be attributed to international forces playing a more advisory role.

"It is a complex situation. First of all, this year is the second year that Afghan forces are fighting the insurgents with very little assistance from the international forces. On the other hand, the Afghan air force capability is very limited," Jalali said. "Taliban also increased their operations, hoping that in the absence of international forces they could make inroads into many districts and provinces."

Insurgent groups see opportunity

Some observers say that around the same time the U.S.-led NATO forces were winding down their combat mission at the end of December 2014, others like the Islamic State group started targeting Afghanistan.

"The threats are not only posed by the insurgents who are fighting with a foreign agenda, we also have to put up with intelligence proxy warfare and terrorists from all over the world. From Africa to the Middle East, and South and Central Asia terrorists are trying their best to turn Afghanistan into their safe haven," said General Mohammad Radmanesh, spokesperson of the Afghan Ministry of Defense. "Madrasas (religious schools) in the neighboring countries are being used as a hub for exporting terrorism to Afghanistan to destabilize the country," he added.

The responsibility for responding to such groups has in many cases fallen to the police, forcing them to choose counter-insurgency operations over enforcing the law.

Critics like General Zalmai Wardak, a military analyst in Kabul, says the challenge is compounded by a lack of leadership.

"When leaders fail to embrace their responsibilities, and there is lack of coordination within the force, it will automatically contribute to increase in casualties," Wardak said. “What adds to all of this is the fact that soldiers are put in the theater only after two months of training."

FILE - Afghan security forces practice handling their weapons in Lashkargah, Helmand province, July 23, 2016.
FILE - Afghan security forces practice handling their weapons in Lashkargah, Helmand province, July 23, 2016.

General Jabar Qahraman was put in charge of the military operations in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold, by President Ashraf Ghani in the beginning of the year. But he is not leading those forces anymore. He said he stepped down from his post because he came to believe that military operations alone cannot end the fighting.

In an interview with VOA, he said he supports negotiations, in part because the current predicament is even more dangerous than the country's soviet era insurgency which was followed by a brutal civil war of the 1990s, fought among various militant factions.

“One of the reasons that this war is increasingly having a big toll on the [Afghan National Security Forces] is that the war itself is multidimensional, involving regional players. In addition to that, it’s an asymmetric warfare which, if fought with conventional means, will without doubt have casualties,” Qahraman said.


Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesperson General Radmanesh pushes back on the criticism, saying the leadership is focused on the right problems.

“We do have an increase in casualties within our force, and we do have some problems within our ranks at the tactical levels but in general our leadership is committed to look after its forces and reinforce them on a timely basis,” Radmanesh said. “They (insurgents) have all kinds of weapons, and they have increasingly relied on IEDs which has increased our fatalities.”

Retired U.S. Marine Johnny Joseph Jones, who was an explosive ordinance disposal technician in Afghanistan in 2010, believes IEDs could be the main contributor in the rise of causalities.

“If the enemy is still using IEDs against the Afghan forces the way they were using it against us, without proper medivac you are going to lose every one of them that get the hit,” Jones said. “It is all a fatal hit unless you have the proper medical assistance in time which includes air support and we are talking 15 to 20 minutes. One amputation could mean death,” Jones said.

Afghan policeman Jaan agrees. He said he was lucky to have survived his wounds during the drive to the hospital. Several of his friends who had life threatening injuries in other IED attacks were neglected for days before they could treated. Some died while waiting.

Jaan's colleague Abdul Bari, who serves in Uruzgan’s Deh Rawood district, told VOA that he is wounded and has yet to be treated.

“I am resident of Deh Rawood district and a member of the Afghan police force. I am wounded. The roads are blocked, and there is no medical help available,” Bari said. “I hope that they send a doctor and take care of us soon.”

Follow the reporter on Twitter at @Alikozai86.