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Violence Escalates In Afghanistan As The Taliban, ISIS Fight Over Turf

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Obama's decision to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan past next year comes after Taliban gains in the country. Afghan forces were only recently able to regain control of Kunduz. That's after the Taliban occupied the provincial capital for weeks, and fighters under the black banner of ISIS are also making inroads. New York Times reporter Mujib Mashal is in Kabul. I asked him if militants are making gains in Afghanistan because they're changing strategy or because Afghan forces are weak.

MUJIB MASHAL: It's a bit of both. On the one hand, the Taliban have been unprecedented in their numbers this year. Afghan officials are telling us that in previous years they were a hit-and-run force. They would come in small numbers, you know, strike a blow and then they had no intentions of holding areas. This past year there were military operations carried out on the Pakistani side of the border by the Pakistani army, and those areas are usually the sanctuaries of some of the Afghan Taliban leaders, but also a lot of foreign militants - whether it's Chechens, whether it's Uzbeks - and all of those are pushed into Afghanistan. And what that translated into, it sort of afforded the Taliban to change strategy, attack in large numbers with the intention to hold territory.

CORNISH: There's also news that ISIS has made inroads in Afghanistan, and in some parts of the country, former members of the Taliban have joined with them. Can you help us understand what is the relationship there, and how has it changed the nature of the fighting?

MASHAL: A few months ago when reports emerged that there were pockets of extremists in Afghanistan pledging allegiance to ISIS - which is the Islamic State in, you know, Syria and Iraq - people were skeptical because a lot of these guys were just old Taliban members who had problems within the movement, political problems, and they decided to gather under this new umbrella. So people weren't sure whether this would turn into an actual cohesive movement. But then over the past two or three months, these groups, former Taliban, they have actually consolidated into what is known as ISIS. And they have just caused tremendous suffering in the east of the country in particular, in the province of Nangarhar. And the Taliban saw them as this new force sort of intruding on their turf. And there are a lot of those kind of turf battles between the Taliban - bloody ones.

But what it has meant is a lot of suffering for the Afghans. I met the people in the east of the country, in Nangarhar, who, for 20, 30 years of fighting in this country, they hadn't abandoned their homes. The Soviets came, they remained. The Taliban came, they remained. And then the Americans invaded, they remained. And then the brutality is such now that they were saying, we couldn't tolerate it anymore, we had to flee our homes. And there are entire villages in the east of the country that are completely abandoned and ghost towns.

CORNISH: What's going on with Afghanistan's defense? Obviously, a major legacy of U.S. involvement is the national and local security forces. But there's also the Afghan local police militia. All these different security apparatus - what's going on?

MASHAL: Yes, the biggest legacy of the U.S. involvement is this roughly 350,000-strong armed forces. But in the past month, the fall of a major city in Kunduz has highlighted questions about their performance. And the measure that the government has taken is to expand on this semi-formal militia force called the local police. Now, this militia force, it's proved to be very abusive in terms of human rights violations in the past, and it's not as tight in terms of chain of command. So many people are concerned that this desperate measure by the Afghan government could perpetuate certain causes of local conflicts.

CORNISH: President Obama announced this week that he plans to keep a small U.S. force in Afghanistan, at least until he leaves office in 2017. In what way at all do you think that this could make a difference?

MASHAL: I think it's a morale boost for the Afghan force. But at the end of the day, it'll have to be a fight by this Afghan force, not the Americans.

CORNISH: Mujib Mashal reports for The New York Times.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MASHAL: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.