After 16 years of U.S. presence in Kabul, the new project is an acknowledgment that even the city’s central districts have become too difficult to defend from Taliban bombings.
KABUL, Afghanistan —
Soon, U.S. Embassy employees in Kabul will no longer need to take a Chinook helicopter ride to cross the street to a military base less than 100 yards outside the present Green Zone security district.
Instead, the boundaries of the Green Zone will be redrawn to include that base, known as the Kabul City Compound, formerly the headquarters for U.S. Special Operations forces in the capital. The zone is separated from the rest of the city by a network of police, military and private security checkpoints.
The expansion is part of a huge public-works project that in the next two years will reshape the center of this city of 5 million to bring nearly all Western embassies, major government ministries, and NATO and U.S. military headquarters within the protected area.
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After 16 years of U.S. presence in Kabul, it is an acknowledgment that even the city’s central districts have become too difficult to defend from Taliban bombings.
The capital project is also clearly taking place to protect another long-term U.S. investment: Along with an increase in troops to a reported 15,000, from around 11,000 at the moment, the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan is likely to keep the military in place well into the 2020s, even by the most conservative estimates.
No one wants to say when any final pullout will take place because the emphasis now is on a conditions-based withdrawal, presumably meaning after the Afghan government can handle the war alone. But President Donald Trump has kept secret the details of those conditions, and how they are defined.
“Until he says what the conditions are, all that means is we’ll be there as long as we want, for whatever reason we want,” said Barnett Rubin, a longtime Afghanistan expert who advised the Obama administration. “And they don’t have to lie to do that because the conditions will never be good enough to say we’re absolutely not needed.”
In practical terms, it means the U.S. military mission will continue for many more years, despite its unpopularity with the American public. Many military strategists, in the United States and Afghanistan, have penciled in plans well into the ’20s, and certainly past any Trump re-election campaign.
At the NATO summit meeting in Warsaw last year, the allies, including the United States, agreed to fund the development of the Afghan security forces until the end of what was termed “the transition decade,” meaning from 2014, when Afghan forces began to take charge of their own security, until 2024.
“I would guess the U.S. has to plan on being inside Afghanistan for a decade or more in order for there to be any type of resolution,” said Bill Roggio, editor of Long War Journal. “It’s definitely past his first term in office, no two ways about it.”
The Green Zone expansion is aimed at making it possible for the United States and its NATO allies to remain in the capital without facing the risks that have in the past year made Kabul the most dangerous place in Afghanistan, with more people killed there than anywhere else in the country, mostly from suicide bombers.
Kabul’s security area had long been a Green Zone lite compared with its fortresslike predecessor in Baghdad, where there are huge blast walls and a total separation from the general population, enforced by biometric entry passes.
In Kabul, thousands of Afghans still commute to jobs and even schools inside the zone, with only light searches for most of them, mindful of the resentment stirred by the Soviets’ heavily militarized central zone during their Afghan occupation. The Green Zone in Baghdad has, its critics maintain, created an out-of-touch ruling class and Western community, and provided a magnet for protests while just moving enormous bombings elsewhere, further stoking popular discontent with leaders and foreigners.
The Kabul Green Zone expansion, which will significantly restrict access, was prompted, according to Afghan and U.S. military officials, by a huge suicide bomb planted in a sewage truck that exploded at a gate of the current Green Zone on May 31, destroying most of the German Embassy and killing more than 150 people. The loss of life could have been far worse, but Germany had evacuated its embassy a week before the bombing, apparently tipped off by intelligence sources.
The military recently appointed an American brigadier general to take charge of greatly expanding and fortifying the Green Zone. In the first stage of the project, expected to take from six months to a year, an expanded Green Zone will be created — covering about 1.86 square miles, up from 0.71 square miles — closing off streets within it to all but official traffic.
Because that will also cut two major arteries through the city, in an area where traffic congestion is already rage-inducing for Afghan drivers, the plans call for building a ring road on the northern side of the Wazir Akbar Khan hill to carry traffic around the new Green Zone.
In a final stage, a still bigger Blue Zone will be established, encompassing most of the city center, where severe restrictions on movement — especially by trucks — will be put in place. Already, height-restriction barriers have been built over roads throughout Kabul to block trucks. Eventually, all trucks seeking to enter Kabul will be routed through a single portal, where they will be X-rayed and searched.
The process of turning Kabul into a fortress started before Trump took office: security measures were tightened and an obtrusive network of blast walls was established in some places years before President Barack Obama left office.
Some of the plans for long-term American assistance in Afghanistan were already in place, too, and have been enhanced. A $6.5 billion program to build a serious Afghan air force is scheduled to take until 2023. In Brussels last October, the United States and other donor nations agreed to continue $15 billion in development funding for the country through 2020.
Unlike Obama, Trump has suggested that U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan until victory. But even his own generals have conceded that a complete military victory in Afghanistan is not possible. The only solution most see is to persuade the Taliban to sit down to peace talks, something they have refused to do as long as U.S. soldiers remain in the country. And with the insurgents gaining ground steadily in the past two years, the Taliban have even less incentive to negotiate.
“It seems America is not yet ready to end the longest war in its history,” said Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, after Trump announced his policy. “As Trump stated, ‘Americans are weary of the long war in Afghanistan.’ We shall cast further worry into them and force American officials to accept realities.”
The Afghan ambassador to Washington, D.C., Hamdullah Mohib, said that talking about how much longer Americans may stay in Afghanistan obscured how different the years to come will be from the first 16 years.
“I think a lot of the discussions when people talk about American presence in Afghanistan, the memory comes of when they were actively involved in combat and bodies were coming back to the United States. That is no longer the case,” Mohib said. “The majority of those soldiers are helping us improve our logistics, organizational capabilities, putting systems in place. While yes, there is an element of counterterrorism operations, it’s largely airstrikes supporting the Afghan special forces.”
Trouble on horizon
Despite the long-term scenario most military planners have embraced, there are still some dates that could disrupt the calendar. Next year, the country will hold elections for a new Parliament — three years late — but there are concerns that preparations for the elections will not be completed in time.
An even greater concern is the next year, 2019, when presidential elections are due. The last presidential election, in 2014, was a fiasco, and amid accusations of fraud and vote-rigging, the outcome ended up in a U.S.-negotiated deal to form a shaky coalition government.
The United States may be willing to look past another tainted election, though the last one nearly devolved into factional conflict. Europe and the NATO allies, however, may be another matter; they have repeatedly insisted on clean and credible elections as a condition for continued support.
“This may be our last golden opportunity,” said Haroun Mir, an Afghan political analyst. “If we cannot solve our problems by 2019, if we move to an ethnic conflict, this may spread to the Afghan security forces, and that would undermine the entire U.S. effort in Afghanistan.”
Mir doubts the United States would stay if that happened. For now, though, the Americans and their allies seem ready to dig in.
The Taliban have been fond of quoting an old Afghan saying: “You have the watches, we have the time.” After Trump announced his new strategy, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, used a televised speech to turn that expression on its head: “The Taliban should go buy a watch,” he said, because time was now on the government’s side.