Afghan Commanding General Says Afghans Feel Abandoned By The U.S.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
We begin this hour with a high-profile departure. General Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, stepped down today, another milestone in ending America's two decades of war there. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has covered the war for all of those 20 years.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Give me some context on where this leaves U.S. operations. The latest is all U.S. troops out by August 31, and until then, what, the CENTCOM commander in Florida takes over the mission?
BOWMAN: That's right, Mary Louise. For the first time now, a general based outside the country, General Frank McKenzie, will have the authority to mount airstrikes against al-Qaida and Islamic State targets in Afghanistan. And it's possible there could also be airstrikes in support of the Afghan military fighting the Taliban. There were some back in May. But overall, Mary Louise, the Americans want the Afghan Air Force to handle that job now.
KELLY: Well, Tom Bowman, stay with us, because next I want to bring in some reaction to this news today, to General Miller's departure, from an Afghan general. This is Sami Sadat, commanding general of the Afghan Army. Now, I first spoke to him a few months ago, and back then - this was April - he was optimistic. He told me even as U.S. forces pulled out, that Afghan forces would not collapse. That was April. And in the weeks since then, some Afghan forces have, in fact, surrendered. The Taliban has seized a third, maybe more, of the country's 400 provincial districts. So today we called General Sadat back to get an update on how he sees the fight. General Sadat, it's good to speak to you again. Where exactly have we caught you today?
SAMI SADAT: Thank you, Mary Louise. I'm in Nimruz Province in southwestern Afghanistan, just a couple of kilometers off the Iranian borders. And towards the west and towards the south of where I am is 150 kilometers Pakistani border. So this is not the best place to be right now.
KELLY: I'm looking at a map. So you're a little bit west of where we spoke to you last time, which was Helmand Province. Is that correct?
SADAT: That's correct.
KELLY: Still a very dangerous part of a very dangerous country. What is the update? What is the security situation where you are?
SADAT: In Nimruz Province, we have had some clashes between the Afghan forces and the Taliban. And unfortunately, we have open border with Pakistan and open border with Iran. So there is this wave of Taliban moving in from Pakistan on Nimruz Province. And then there is the Iranian facilitators who are getting material support and direction from Iran to attack the Afghan forces. And they have been very active, equipping and preparing and trying to overrun some district centers. We did lose one district center in Nimruz, and that's why I'm here to take it back. We're preparing a couple of operations to clear some of the pockets in the villages where the Taliban have managed to place themselves. And then my mission will be completed from here.
KELLY: Just to make sure I'm hearing you correctly, you're saying there are Taliban fighters crossing the border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and that's part of who your forces are fighting now?
SADAT: That's correct. So my corps is located in southwestern Afghanistan, where I have around 300 kilometer border with Pakistan and then 330 kilometer with Iran. So literally, we are in the middle of two countries' proxy war that we're fighting. From Pakistan, the Taliban crossed armed with a lot of IEDs and landmines and vehicles and other means. There's a number of al-Qaida fighters coming into Afghanistan recently. I've never seen so much al-Qaida fighters in my area of responsibility. There has been this resurgence of al-Qaida battle groups coming back to life, creating, like, radio communication centers, creating facilitation nodes to support some of the Taliban fighters. And I think what they're trying to do is to recruit more, like, Punjabi and extremist elements from Pakistan and then facilitate them into the Taliban ranks.
KELLY: So this is very active fighting. Your forces are engaged every day.
SADAT: Oh, yes. So two nights ago, where I am right now, 1,000 Taliban from Farah Province from across western Afghanistan made a push on one of our brigade headquarters. The battle was very intense. In the first few minutes, they conducted three vehicle-borne IED attacks on our soldiers. Unfortunately, I have had casualties and injuries on my side. Of course, they have failed, and many of them got killed. But this is the fight of today. You would see massing of Taliban into 1,000 in southwestern Afghanistan and then making a run for some of our forces.
KELLY: Why are some Afghan forces surrendering to the Taliban and sometimes without a fight?
SADAT: I think, Mary Louise, there is a sense of abandonment amongst the Afghans from when the U.S. left. They feel abandoned and left alone. The other reason is the massive propaganda conducted by the Taliban. It's playing into their ear. The third reason is really logistical support. Afghanistan is a very large country. The territory is very big. Conducting ground operations to resupply some of your areas - the terrain is very bad. So in my assessment, there's three things have been, like, the main reason why some of the forces couldn't hold their ground. But this is not in a scale that would worry some of the strategic locations of Afghanistan. All Afghan forces are still holding.
KELLY: Are they? I mean, I am seeing reports that the Taliban has seized a third of the country's provincial districts.
SADAT: I think the district centers have been seized. But a lot of the strategic assets, like the hydropower dams, the urban areas, the economic centers, is still with the Afghan forces. There was worry...
KELLY: Does the Taliban...
SADAT: ...About it.
KELLY: ...Not now - have they not made huge gains along the borders, including the border with Iran, close to where you are?
SADAT: Not in my area of responsibility. But they have made some gains in Farah and Herat Province. And that was quickly retaken by some of the local leaders, you know, accompanying the security forces. In Farah, we still have a large area of our border with Iran controlled by the Taliban. But they're seeing people moving in to take that back.
KELLY: I want to follow on something you said, which is you think one factor here is Afghan forces feeling abandoned. You and I are speaking on a day where we saw General Miller, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, step down. The U.S. is now saying all U.S. forces will be out by August 31. How does it feel to you? Do you feel like you're on your own in this fight now?
SADAT: I kind of do. And I kind of felt that when the Taliban and the U.S. agreement came to fruition and the limitation of the airstrikes and - I will miss them, you know? And I said this in my last interview as well. I have some of my best friends and some of my best battle comrades. But I understand they have their own country. I have my own country. They have other things to do in the world, and I need to be responsible for what we're doing here.
KELLY: Despite your efforts, if things get worse instead of better, if the worst comes to pass and your government falls, what responsibility do you think the U.S. bears?
SADAT: Well, I don't think for a second that our government will fall. And I - of course, you know, things are at stake, and they're dangerous. And I think we have lost part of our country and some of our districts. We want to fight back from our cities. We want to remobilize in our cities and go back and attack. And if we lose, then that's...
KELLY: And I'm asking that, in part, because you'll have seen the reports of U.S. intelligence estimates saying Kabul could fall in as soon as six months after U.S. forces are fully out.
SADAT: I disagree with that assessment. I believe Kabul will become much more stronger in the next few months. The central government is linked with the communities, and people will grow stronger. There is a possibility that some of our cities might - may fall into the hands of the Taliban. But we want to continue fighting, you know? If a city falls, we will attack from another city. If a district falls, we will attack from the cities. We will never give up, you know? We will continue to fight. And I think it's only time that we will convince the rest of the world that we could win this fight and we should win this fight.
KELLY: That is commanding general of the Afghan Army, Sami Sadat, speaking to us from the front lines there in southwestern Afghanistan.
General Sadat, thanks for being with us again.
SADAT: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: And NPR's Tom Bowman is still here, was listening along to the general. And Tom, I wonder what you make of General Sadat's comments on the state of the fight. On the one hand, you heard there pure determination. He says they're going to keep fighting. He's optimistic the government will hold. On the other hand, his forces are engaged. They're engaged in heavy combat every day.
BOWMAN: Right. You know, a general in his tough position, I suppose, has to remain optimistic. And it's noteworthy what he said, Mary Louise, about more al-Qaida fighters coming in and, of course, large numbers of Taliban coming from - across from Pakistan. That's been a real problem from the beginning, those safe havens in Pakistan. Now, local news reports are less optimistic. They're saying the provincial capital where the general is fighting, Lashkargah, is being pressed by the Taliban. That's one of 10 urban areas around the country being threatened - a very troubling situation.
KELLY: All right. And would mark a turning point, perhaps, in the battle there if the Taliban is turning its sights, literally, on the cities of Afghanistan. What are you watching for in these coming days and weeks?
BOWMAN: Well, the big thing, Mary Louise, is, will the Afghan Air Force be able to provide airstrikes to General Sadat and other commanders? That's an urgent need. The other thing is, General Sadat is bringing local militias into the fight with him. He's training them as part of his army. And some of the warlords around the country are also getting their militias ready, maybe fighting independent of the Afghan Army. And that could be important in holding some of the urban areas now under Taliban threat.
KELLY: And also making those battle lines even more complex and complicated than they already were.
KELLY: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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