PBS NewsHour


Why fighting in Afghanistan persists, 17 years later

In Afghanistan, 26 districts are now under Taliban control, and the country continues to suffer thousands of civilian casualties. Why has it been so difficult for Afghanistan to make progress in the fight for security and reconstruction? Nick Schifrin sits down with Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s chief executive, to discuss funding challenges, external “distractions” and the upcoming elections.

AIRED: October 09, 2018 | 0:07:22

JUDY WOODRUFF: The United States has now been fighting in Afghanistan for 17 years.

For that entire time, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah has sat at the forefront of Afghan politics.

He twice ran for president in fraud-riddled elections, and twice lost.

After a bitter post-election fight in 2014 with eventual winner Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah

signed a power-sharing agreement and became chief executive officer.

The Taliban and other insurgents still conduct daily attacks, and the country's stability

remains in doubt.

To discuss all this, Nick Schifrin is back with this interview he taped recently in New


NICK SCHIFRIN: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of Afghanistan, thank you very much.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH, Afghan Chief Executive: You're welcome.

NICK SCHIFRIN: There are now 26 districts under the Taliban control, according to your


More than 5,000 civilians became casualties last year, according to the U.N., one of the

highest totals ever.

Why do you think there hasn't been more progress in Afghanistan?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: The -- that's one side of the picture, which is challenging, of course,

and is a challenge for us.

The other side of the picture shows progress in the lives of the citizens and the economy,

in (INAUDIBLE) generation, education services, private sector development.

And the fact that there isn't more progress is the fact that the security still is a challenge.

And it absorbs most of our resources, energy and time.

NICK SCHIFRIN: About a year ago, President Trump announced a new South Asia strategy.

DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States: My original instinct was to pull out.

And, historically, I like following my instincts.

NICK SCHIFRIN: President Trump has expressed skepticism about keeping troops in Afghanistan.

Do you think the strategy is sustainable?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: To make it work is -- of course, part of it is for us inside the country,

as authorities, as well as the citizens of that country.

And part of it is the cooperation from the region, which the strategy has a regional

aspect in it.

Another part of it is dealing with the sanctuaries.

NICK SCHIFRIN: So you just used the word sanctuary.


NICK SCHIFRIN: Are you referring to Pakistan?


That part of the issue remains to be, still, an impediment, a challenge.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The U.S. has spent $750 billion on security in Afghanistan and $125 billion

on reconstruction.

Those of us who lived in Afghanistan know that it's not about the money.

But it has been 17 years.

Why do you believe that this strategy can succeed, where the last 17 years of strategy

hasn't produced the results that were promised?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: There were detractions.

Engagement in Iraq was when one detraction.

The announcement of withdrawal in 2012, which created an aura of uncertainty, that was another

detraction, into that affected the security situation, economic situation, and also the

calculus of friends and foes towards Afghanistan.

These are behind us now.

The responsibility on the shoulders of Afghan security forces, mainly security defense forces,

that's a big shift.

So that means that the U.S. is not having the same burden on it shoulders that they

used to have.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Now, what about commitment from senior Afghans to the United States?

There have been some prominent political figures and parliamentarians recently, as you know,

who questioned the utility of the bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and

the United States.

Does that signal an erosion of trust in NATO and the United States on the Afghan side?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I will say that consider that as part of freedom of speech.

There was a meeting, there was a get-together for another purpose and some political leaders

which had their own -- which had developed their own opinions in the past few years,

based on different reasons.

At times, for example, when we have civilian casualties as a result of military operations,

people are upset.

You don't expect those families which have given losses to come and praise all of us,

including us in the government.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The U.S. has begun talks with the Taliban about future peace negotiations.

Have you seen any evidence the Taliban is serious about this round of talks, more serious

perhaps than they have been about previous rounds?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: That remains to be seen.

Taliban so far has not -- have not shown real intentions.

From time to time, they have participated in some contacts with talks, and then used

it only for P.R. purposes, which were not the purpose of those meetings or those contacts.

The pressure on Taliban inside Afghanistan should continue, military security-wise.

And to -- outside Afghanistan, also, they should -- they should feel pressure.

NICK SCHIFRIN: There used to be a lot more pressure on them, because there used to be

100,000 U.S. troops.

So why would they come to the table and speak directly to you, the Afghan government, which

is what the U.S. is asking for, when they wouldn't in the past?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: Now Taliban don't have the same excuse as they were using, because

they are facing the Afghan forces.

The Afghan security forces were nonexistent 17 years back.

Part of the strategy is to double the size of our commando forces, which are effective

forces, the air force.

These are the capabilities which will -- which will enable us to pursue dual track.

One is to protect our citizens.

The second one is to find out, whenever there is an opportunity for talks and negotiations,

seize it and to capitalize on it.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The presidential election is in April.

Will you be running with President Ghani or against him?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: There is a solid commitment in my part to help the unity government function

until the last day of its mandate.

To run with President Ghani is not an option for me, in the same token, with any other


NICK SCHIFRIN: And, today, you're in the United States.

What's your message to U.S. officials you're meeting with and to American viewers who might

still be skeptical about the war?

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: The U.S. have made a big investment in peace, in fact, and stability

of a part of the world.

While we are grateful, grateful, our people also have made big sacrifices.

Together, we have been through this journey.

My message is that it is doable.

It's also in the interests of peace and stability in that part of the world that we complete

this journey together.