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“Wars today cannot be won without media”. Book Review – Thomas Johnson’s “Taliban Narratives”

October 17, 2018

“Wars today cannot be won without media”

Summary: Thomas Johnson’s overview of the way in which the Taliban communicate to advance their cause is an excellent and essential reference work.  Johnson explores in depth the Taliban’s exploitation of diverse media, both traditional and modern.  Poetry, letters, social media and radio, amongst others are employed to play intelligently to a range of local, national and international audiences.

Review: Taliban Narratives – Thomas Johnson

I read the book early in the year (I scooped it up via Amazon along with Theo Farrell’s “Unwinnable” and Steve Coll’s “Directorate S”, which gives a clue to the importance of the subject in my small universe) and have been using it professionally since then.  Thomas Johnson has been researching in Afghanistan since the mid-1980s.  He brought this expertise into play in helping to formulate the early US propaganda messages from 2001 and conducted extensive field research in-country from 2004 – 2011.

Johnson’s work is an in-depth review of the way in which the Taliban use narrative through increasingly varied media to explain and advance their cause.  He also examines and contrasts the progress of the propaganda war from US-led Coalition and Taliban perspectives.  He judges that the international community always struggled to understand the Taliban and scrambled to develop a coherent propaganda response to the themes and stories that the Taliban employed and that naturally resonated with the Taliban’s core target audience, the Pushtuns on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border.

The Taliban recognise that “Wars today cannot be won without media”.  The narratives they use contain strong echoes of their values and beliefs – through their letters, statements and poems, there are coherent rhetorical devices and metaphor.  The use of repetition is important – narratives and stories are continually returned to on the basis that they are more effective that way.  Taliban information operations exploit culture (for example Pushtunwali, the Pushtun tribal customs) and history (success in repelling invaders).  Johnson asserts that Taliban information strategies are “virtually impossible” for the West to counter because the West does not have the sensitivity to the poetic nature of dialects, lacks linguistic skills and does not understand what resonates with the population.

An insurgency is a product of its own culture

Johnson argues that Taliban information operations are very effective because it is indigenous and relies on traditional tools – shabnamah (night letters), tarana (chants) and poems – that are deeply rooted in Pushtun culture.  These approaches are critical to our understanding of how the Taliban recruit.  The Taliban take aim at three different Afghan identities: religious, cultural and political.  Although the message themes are relatively simple (Pushtunwali, honour, justice, victimisation, independence, resistance) they have been enhanced from around 2005 by an increasing variety of delivery mechanisms available given developing technology and the situation on the ground: print, radio, spokesmen, testing, social media, websites, graffiti, videos, preachers, sermons, poetry, presence patrols and pattak (ad hoc checkpoints).  Most of the Taliban messaging focus and impact is at the rural/village/local level, recognising three distinct audiences, neutral, sympathetic and opposing.  Where most analysts now appear to overly focus on the Taliban’s use of social media and the internet, Johnson very helpfully guides us down less travelled – but equally important – messaging processes:

“Poetry has an exceptional place within Afghan culture and society, and the Taliban play on this fact.  Condensing deep thoughts and emotions within just a few words, and expressing them with elegance and flow, has meant that a Taliban poem can be used as a communication device…It is important to understand and appreciate why poetry occupies such a significant space in the psyche of the Afghan…a huge role in communicating thoughts and ideas from person to person…the Taliban uses poetry to communicate the legitimacy of their actions, and to sanctify the ongoing insurgency.” (p.140-141)

Johnson’s individual chapters break down into broad and deep coverage of different media types: magazines, circulars and newsletters (chapter 4), night letters (chapter 5), internet, video, radio and graffiti (chapter 6), poetry and chants (chapter 7), the Layeha, or code of conduct (chapter 8).  Interestingly, Johnson convincingly refutes the notion of the Taliban as backward and anti-modernity, by highlighting the Taliban as “pioneers” in the use of Facebook and Twitter, where the Afghan government was largely absent on this new electronic media battlefield.

Battle of propaganda campaigns: Chapter 10

Johnson offers an insightful “compare and contrast” discussion, looking at the performance of both Taliban and US propaganda campaigns since 2001.  He argues that the international community had problems defining the parameters of the conflict from the word go and struggled to put together an information operations campaign.  Crude early propaganda leaflets were toxic to the local population who knew the dangers of being seen handling one.  Early images of the 9/11 attack in the US were simply not understood by the population.  The 2003 attack on Iraq took resources away from the media effort.  By 2007 a revamp of the “master narrative” tried to emphasise “in it for the long haul”, the comprehensive approach and the destruction and criminality linked to the Taliban.  This narrative failed to resonate.

Stalemate is a victory for most insurgencies.  For the Taliban’s part, they need to remain credibly in the field and at least be tolerated by the population.  Johnson suggests the challenge for the US is still to defeat the Taliban’s narrative as much as their military capacity on the battlefield.

Analytical diversion – What is “effective” propaganda?

I still struggle to understand what “effective” means where it comes to the use of propaganda.  When I first wrote on the subject, in 2007, I think I made an early tactical mistake when I judged that the Taliban messaging techniques were “only partially effective”, citing their crude home-grown methods, the contradictions and lack of strategic reach.  I spent the next few years realising that I didn’t know what “effective” actually meant.

What is effective Taliban propaganda?  How do you measure it?  Are the Taliban effective at messaging because the Taliban still manage to convince people to fight for them?  Or are they not so effective because they have not rallied the population to their banner – they have not achieved the popular jihad of the 1980s.  The population, by most measures, do not support the Taliban and their interpretations of Islam.

The international community have their own problems – I remember reading the open source bulletin board in the ISAF HQ in mid-2006.  There was an account of early British “hearts and minds” operations in Helmand which involved showing a film of dolphins in the ocean to a gathering of gnarled village elders who didn’t even know what the ocean was, let alone recognise a dolphin.

But I was struck by how readily the ISAF analytical and military community were keen to tell everyone that would listen that ”…of course the Taliban have a much more sophisticated IO system than us”…

This aroused my curiosity – my limited studies suggested to me that the Taliban were not superhuman in this department and were regularly incoherent, uncoordinated and lacking in a strategy.  The Taliban approach to bad news always seemed to be to denounce, deny or deflect.  It seemed that westerners declared the Taliban “effective” primarily because the Taliban were able to say lots of things very quickly and on a variety of “modern” means.  There was less attention applied to the content of the messaging.

Fast forward to 2011 and another tour in the ISAF headquarters.  One brainstorming group of analysts was gamely grappling with the narrative complexities of Afghan culture – what is the most effectively insulting way of describing the Taliban that would clearly resonate with the population?  From fading memory, the word being mulled over was “wolves”.

In one briefing, the dilemmas of western military personnel countering Taliban propaganda was made clear in this crudely summarised (and poorly remembered) exchange:

Junior officer: Sir, in village x, of y district we received reports yesterday that the Taliban had made two night letter drops.

Senior officer: Ok, so what has our response been?

Junior officer: Sir, within 24 hours we had performed our own ISAF leaflet drop, sent out two presence patrols and put out three local radio broadcasts covering the village area.

Senior officer: Excellent, well done.  Next slide please.

Please don’t quote this, because this conversation absolutely didn’t happen this way – I have fudged and blurred it around to the point of being barely apocryphal.  But this was the overall impression I came away with from the ISAF approach – it was about stats and numbers.  Leaflets, plus a presence patrol plus a radio broadcast defeats a Taliban night letter.  A lot of information operations “stuff” was being done, in the same way your work expands to fill the desk space available.

I got a chance to address some of the analytical community on the issue of propaganda effectiveness.  So, not from memory this time, because I actually wrote it down, I summarised the problem to ISAF thus:

If you cannot measure the Taliban’s messaging actions, content and methods, you cannot know how effective the Taliban’s messaging is.  Therefore you do not know which types of Taliban messages you urgently need to counter, those messages you can ignore and those messages that you could even encourage.

Even though I demonstrably struggle to understand the effectiveness of Taliban narratives, my sense is that the Taliban’s narratives may slowly become redundant unless they can evolve – the Afghan population are getting younger and have a wider understanding of the rest of the world – internet, smart phones, social media assist this.  They have greater expectations about what a government could and should do for them.  The Taliban’s language still seem stuck in war, resistance, total obedience and a crude “war economy” in districts that they can dominate.  That may be fine to ensure an annual quota of uneducated, poor and unemployed Pushtun youths to come and fight for them.  But at some point they need to evolve – perhaps opening their narratives to include reconstruction, the economy, unemployment, governance, popular consent.  But evolution does not mean using a new social media system, it means deeper and broader, strategic and future-looking thinking.  Perhaps we should be asking them other questions – political, social, economic, cultural – and compel them to come up with new narratives as they answer these questions.

Conclusion – would like to see more of…

Johnson’s book is one of the most important reference works we have on the issue of the Taliban’s use of narrative.  It is a crucial subject that is woefully understudied.  It is not simply a review of the Taliban’s use of the internet, radio, social media and night letters.  It takes in the Taliban’s employment of stories from Afghan history and critically pursues the understanding of the Taliban that we can gain through an exploration of the narratives they use and the impact it can have.  The book will be crying out for a updated edition or two in a few years, as the Taliban – and the situation in Afghanistan – evolves.  I had the slight sense, reading through, that the bulk of Johnson’s case studies of Taliban narratives peak at around 2008-2010 – he seems to offer fewer examples of Taliban propaganda and messaging after this period.

I have some questions for that next edition:

  • I would like to hear more about how the Taliban confronted the NATO withdrawal narrative in the run-up to the December 2014 departure and afterwards. Amongst which, the implications that the battle was going to be more about “Muslim killing Muslim” in the future.
  • How do the Taliban now approach the issue of leadership death/changeover from a media perspective?
  • Any evidence that the Taliban are analysing how best to address peace talks in their narratives? Any lessons learnt from the summer 2018 3 day ceasefire – did this cause problems for the Taliban messaging machine?
  • Is it fair to assert that both sides now have drifted into a rut of tired and unimaginative propaganda?  The Taliban Twitter feed is routinely a list of people they have blown up.  Are there any new initiatives and methods merging?
  • Have the Taliban struggled to maintain the historic/cultural/poetry narrative front? It seems that the type of young Taliban fighter – and even mid-level commanders – now fighting may not have the same attachment to Afghan history as before.
  • Following from the last question – night letters – how has this evolved? I recently (this year) read that the Taliban state that they do not really use them so much any more.  Is it becoming less effective – overtaken by smart phones and social media?

Amnesty International – calls Europe to stop returning Afghans to “deteriorating” Afghanistan

October 17, 2018

Summary: When is a country too dangerous to return to?  Amnesty International called European countries to stop returning Afghan asylum seekers to a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

Last week Amnesty International issued an appeal to European governments to stop forced returns of Afghan asylum seekers due to the “demonstrably deteriorating security and humanitarian situation”:

Amnesty International, 10 October 2018: Ahead of a week of action across Europe, Amnesty International calls on European governments to stop forcibly sending people to deadly conditions in Afghanistan. The recent dramatic increase in returns of Afghan asylum-seekers have put thousands of people at a real risk of serious human rights violations in contravention of the binding international legal principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from transferring anyone to a place where they are at real risk of serious human rights violations.

Despite demonstrably deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan over the past two years and the record number of civilian casualties, European countries have stepped up the deportations of Afghan nationals arguing that areas of the country are “safe” – in stark contrast to the developments on the ground…The war in Afghanistan has affected lives in multiple ways. In addition to physical insecurity, Afghans have suffered socially, economically and psychologically. Without any prospect of peace on the horizon, Afghans are now at risk in every corner of the country. Public places, such as schools, hospitals, markets, sports grounds and clubs, mosques and even funeral ceremonies, have been targeted.

Image result for kabul talibanThe Taliban certainly seem to have upped their game this year and the security situation looks to have deteriorated since the NATO departure in December 2014.  It remains difficult to define the point at which it is too dangerous to return failed asylum seekers – a highly sensitive political issue for most countries.  European countries rely, theoretically at least, on something called Article 15(c), which is an EU Directive (DIRECTIVE 2011/95/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL) that holds that people should not be returned to a country or an area of a country if the security situation is so dangerous that the act of simply returning there would put them at high risk of being affected by violence, irrespective of any specific threats that might have caused them to have fled in the first place.  I assume that places like Afghanistan in the 1980s (Soviet invasion), Afghanistan during the 1990s (civil war), Iraq in the 2005- 2015 period and Syria from 2013 onwards would fit this type of definition.

But when is a country too dangerous?  Uppsala data shows the brutal 1990s civil war as actually being less bad than the current situation, purely in terms of casualties:




Afghan drought – displacing more Afghans than the conflict?

October 17, 2018

Image result for afghanistan drought

Summary: a drought across large parts of Afghanistan continues to cause grave concern and population displacement.

It is not just war that is driving Afghans out of their country as refugees.  A drought has been affecting Afghanistan for months, highlighting the country’s economic fragility and dependency on international aid:

April 2018, Relief Web, quoting several reliable agencies and NGOs:

In the past week, another 120,000 people have arrived in Qala-e-Naw City, Badghis, due to the drought. In Kandahar, assessment teams verified the arrival of 2,800 drought-displaced people from Badghis and Ghor and 1,400 in the district centre of Maiwand, Kandahar. The total displacement due to the drought has reached a total of 275,000 people…The intense drought between April and September is expected to further aggravate the already poor malnutrition status within the 20 affected provinces, and the impact may extend to December. As a result, an increase in acute malnutrition caseload between July and December 2018 is expected. In addition, the severity of acute malnutrition among children under five may get worse, resulting in cases that are more complicated. As of 19 July, it is reasonable to assume that the increase in magnitude and severity of acute malnutrition and disease will stretch the capacity of health facilities to provide treatment, and that in the medium to long-term, children will face heightened vulnerability to morbidity and mortality

This from the BBC and many other sources over the last few weeks:

A deadly drought in Afghanistan is causing a humanitarian crisis that has displaced more people this year than the war between the government and the Taliban. The BBC’s Secunder Kermani reports from Herat.  Shadi Mohammed, 70, wells up with tears as he walks through the makeshift camp on the outskirts of the western city of Herat, where he lives with his family.

“We are thirsty and hungry. We took what little we could with us, but lost most of it on the way. Now we have nothing. Eight of us live in this small tent,” he says.

“My wife and my brother died. Half of our children are here. The other half were left behind.”

Mr Mohammed is one of an estimated 260,000 people who have been forced from their homes in northern and western Afghanistan because of a severe drought in the region.  The drought is adding to the misery in the country where levels of violence have been increasing since 2014 when international forces formally ended their combat mission…But the UN says that this year, the drought has displaced more Afghans than even the conflict between the Taliban and the government.

From UNOCHA, as at September:

• Some 120,000 people have newly displaced from rural areas of Badghis to Qala-e-Naw during the reporting period.

• The number of people displaced due to the drought is currently more than 250,000 in the Western Region.

• Assistance is being provided in the displacement sites in Badghis and Hirat provinces and efforts are ongoing to scale up assistance in rural areas of origin.

• Around 190,000 people have been reached with safe drinking water in areas of origin and of displacement in Hirat and Badghis provinces.

• Capacity of partners in Badghis province remains significantly insufficient across all sectors of aid.

• Since the beginning of the integrated drought response in August, more than 690,000 people have been reached with life-saving assistance.

2.2m People estimated in May to be affected by the drought.

1.4m People prioritised for assistance to October.

120,000 People displaced by the drought during the reporting period.

39,000 People receiving food assistance during the reporting period in five provinces.

190,000 People receiving safe drinking water during the reporting period.

Afghanistan: Increasing civilian deaths from airstrikes

September 27, 2018

afghanistan-airstrikeeSummary: UN concerned over a 50% increase in Afghan civilian casualties from airstrikes

New York Times – and many other outlets – highlighting a concerned warning from the United Nations.

NYT, 27 September: The number of civilians killed by Afghan and American airstrikes is rising, the United Nations said Tuesday, as the Afghan government increasingly relies on airpower in its fight against a resurgent Taliban.

The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said 21 civilians were killed in two airstrikes last weekend and urged all parties to the conflict to take stronger measures to protect civilians…Its ground forces stretched as they fight insurgents in about two dozen of the country’s 34 provinces, the Afghan government relies heavily on airstrikes to push back against Taliban gains. Although American forces conduct most of the strikes, the Afghan Air Force is increasingly involved,  carrying out as many as two dozen strikes a day…”

Some stark statistics from the UN suggest a 50% increase in civilian casualties compared to the same period last year:

UN Press release: In the first six months of the year, UNAMA documented 353 civilian casualties (149 deaths and 204 injured) from aerial attacks, a 52 per cent increase from the same period in 2017. It is of particular concern that women and children made up more than half of all aerial attack civilian casualties. The Mission attributed 52 per cent of all civilian casualties from aerial attacks to the Afghan Air Force, 45 per cent to international military forces, and the remaining three per cent to unidentified Pro-Government Forces. Around seven per cent of all civilian casualties in the Afghan conflict in the first half of the year were attributed to air operations.

It seems a major cause is the Afghan army now being empowered with ground attack aircraft and using it more – but with less skill than the US.

Democracy Forum talk: Afghanistan – the challenges ahead

September 26, 2018

Democracy Forum, 13 September. Check out the back of Ms Fair’s laptop if you can…

Summary. Little tangible optimism.  The usual problems remain.  The number of troops in Afghanistan is not as important as empowering Afghanistan’s economic potential.

I was lucky enough to catch a pretty stellar cast of analysts and experts at the Democracy Forum’s discussion on the challenges facing Afghanistan.  Overall, the debate offered some pragmatic reality and little in the way of immediate – or even medium-term – hope.  Most of the issues are still as I remember them from 2013, 2009, 2004 – talk about talks with the Taliban, concern over lack of progress, the faltering election process, the debate over the role of Pakistan and whether (and how) the US are going to win a “military” victory, whatever that might actually mean.  For me, there were three key issues that came out:

Peace talks about peace talks: I didn’t take much comfort that much was happening amid the flurries of rumour and denials that we have not already seen or got excited about before.  Maybe there is cause for optimism this time (as was suggested).  But I have yet to see anything.  For my money, the Taliban have upped their military game a little bit this year and may feel that they can do even better.  The Taliban are concerned about weakening themselves if they talk and/or strike a deal.

The economics of it all: Barnett Rubin and Christine Fair made very strong points in their own ways that whatever the military and political dynamics and direction, Afghanistan cannot sustain itself economically (landlocked, food shortages…) on its own.  Do not lose track of this – Afghanistan’s economic viability is perhaps more important than anything else…

Pakistan’s Great Game: Pakistan has many internal flaws.   Its negative role (support for the Taliban) remains much argued over but Afghanistan cannot blame the Pakistanis for everything – need to take some responsibility as well…

But don’t take my word for it, here are my notes of the wise words from an impressive and thought-provoking panel.  I welcome any thoughts…


Democracy Forum talk: Afghanistan – the challenges ahead, 13 September 2018

Barnett Rubin, Antonio Giustozzi, Emily Winterbotham, Christine Fair

Said Tayeb Jawad, Afg ambassador to UK:

  • Peace plan – what is a peace plan. We need a peace “concept”.  It is like planning a wedding without a proposal.  A peace process only happens when both sides are weak.  The idea of negotiating from a position of strength is flawed
  • There is no meaningful discussion about what peace means for the Taliban – peace can weaken the Taliban as different factions discuss and argue.
  • PP hasn’t started yet – if it starts it will be quick. Ideological groups like FARC and the IRA took longer to reach peace.  The Taliban are only united by war.  The act of having negotiations makes it harder to maintain the resolve of the foot soldiers – the ceasefire in June showed that the Taliban soldiers rather enjoyed the peace – so denial of talks and “window-shopping” for talk locations (Russia?) is part of the “game”.  Talks have been happening in some way since 2004.
  • How to talk? The prime stakeholders are the Afg govt and population.  Secondary participants are the US, Pakistan, etc.  In talks the objective is to weaken the other side (?).  It will be a long process with conflicting reports/denials
  • The Taliban cannot govern Afghanistan alone – they would not be able to fund it (international support would vanish)

Barnett Rubin

  • Peace process – planning is essential, peace “scenarios” is a good concept. Negotiation is a process – a changing of the relationship between the opponents.  It is not “zero sum”.
  • What will the strategic position of Afghanistan be after a peace agreement. What should the situation be in relation to US forces in Afghanistan?.
  • The main Taliban demand is the complete withdrawal of foreign troops (but privately there are nuances to this).
  • Afghanistan, as it is currently defined, has never been able to produce enough resources to fund its own state – partly because the British and Russians clipped it into a buffer state (Durand line etc). This deprived Afghanistan of its most productive territories.  The state is even more dependent now on foreign support after a war of 40 years.
  • Three main periods in this time frame: Soviet hegemony, no hegemony, attempted Pakistani hegemony, US hegemony. The 1990s saw state collapse.  The 2001 US intervention was backed by international consensus and Pakistan isolated, leading to a few years of peace.  This broke down in around 2005.
  • Key issues – who will fund the Afghan government? Who will counter ISIS and others?
  • The peace process does not have to consist of one meeting and agenda – could comprise of many groups and mediators: Afg govt, Taliban, political actors, ethnic groups.
  • The possible permanent presence of the US forces is a concern to the entire continent – should be considered in a different forum.
  • Rubin doesn’t like the word “spoiler” it is more about people that cannot be taken account of. The Chinese have a very different timeframe for judging progress

Emily Winterbotham:  

  • Peace talks tend to be an annual thing – but perhaps there is some real momentum this time? The Doha talks between the US and the Taliban as an “ice-breaker”.
  • Are the Taliban ready to talk? They have some level of control in 40-50% of the country and are still committed to fighting.  The Taliban military leadership faction may become talk “spoilers” if they see they are continuing to win.
  • US CT ops rumble on – “groundhog day”.
  • Concern over signs of fragmentation within the Afghan government – Hekmatyar’s concern was controversial, there are accusations that Ashraf Ghani is trying to increase the Pushtun element in government. Rivalry between Ghani and Dostum.  Many coalitions and powerbrokers – hard to keep track.  The Afghan government is removed from the population.  Perhaps not even sure if the elections should go ahead?  The Taliban know they cannot win in an election. – would it be so bad to skip the elections and have another “Bonn-type”  agreement?
  • But it does seem there is a positive shift towards talks – a second round is scheduled. The Taliban still call it an “occupation”.  Signs of Taliban lack of unity.

Christine Fair – protecting Chabahar from Trump:

  • Map of Taliban control shows govt version and analysts version – NATO were doing this dishonestly since 2009. Gen Nicholson says Trump’s strategy is working.  Difficult to know what the truth is – this is the most depressing time to be a south Asia analysts.  At least Obama’s approach was structured…
  • Supply/trade routes. What happened to the Northern Distribution Network.  What is Pakistan closes the airspace?
  • An acceptable ground Line of Communication could have been the Iranian port of Chabahar to protect against these potential problems – but Trump has torn up the JCPOA – need to protect Chabahar from Trump
  • Need to think about the economic viability of Afghanistan – historically a “rentier” state. It is resource-rich but it needs an economic and trade infrastructure: Chabahar can be a part of this.  The number of troops in Afghanistan is not as important as empowering Afghanistan’s economic potential.

Antonio Giustozzi:

  • Peace in Afghanistan is unlikely to come through a US-led political process (and watch for the Russians, flush with Syria success?)
  • From Giustozzi’s own engagement with the Taliban, what happens to them as an organisation after a peace deal is very important. Most of their funding comes from foreign sources – they fear losing this (around $1.5Bn a year).  The Taliban need guarantees over their income and they want political jobs and power on a par with other Afg govt members.  You will not see this as part of an official peace proposal but it might end up looking something like a Bonn Agreement…
  • Some Pushtun tribes see the Taliban as vehicle or their own tribal interests.
  • Perhaps two-thirds of the Taliban favour talks with the Taliban government – many of the local Taliban are not really fighting any more – not focussing on taking Ghazni or shifting from guerrilla to more conventional combat.
  • Peace – may not be the official UN-preferred version – diverse interests have to be secured – likely to be a gap between official peace and reality: “someone with big pockets will have to come and take care of the Taliban”. Russia is perhaps the only country that can talk to all the regional actors.

Discussion, Q&A

  • Inevitable heated exchange between Afg and Pak delegates over the extent to which the Taliban are proxies controlled by Pakistan. Rubin observed – there are no independent actors but also no puppets.
  • Giustozzi – if the US was going to win the war militarily they would have done it earlier, when they had 110,000 troops back in 2011/12. But if the US pulls troops out, Afghanistan will only last a few weeks before collapsing – only US mil spt prevented the complete loss of Farah and Ghazni.
  • Fair – views on UK govt and policy to Afg: either a) clueless, b) contempt or c) colonial
  • Pakistani army – not a professional force, it stages coups, elects PM – Imran Khan is the “Mayor of Islamabad”, critical of Pakistan but Afghans should not put all the blame there.  Everyone should work to hold Pakistan accountable, but there is a two part problem: Afghan policies do not help (eg policy on the Durand line).  Afghans must also take responsibility – Afghanistan’s problems are both internal and external.
  • Debate over who control s what part of the country – “control” of districts or what does “contested” mean? Running local government, taxes??
  • Fair – Pakistan’s problems are mainly inward, with itself: religion, partition, the army – Pakistan needs a new narrative for itself
  • Rubin: 3 realities cannot be changed – Afg is landlocked and without much water, more or less the poorest country in the world (barring SSA), its neighbours do not change.
  • Also to Afg – do not have misplaced hope in the US to fix everything ,you have to live with your neighbours…
















How does this end…?

September 25, 2018

A bleak summary here:

Ottawa citizen, 21 September 2018: “Afghanistan is now the deadliest country in the world for journalists; that more civilians have been killed in Afghanistan during the first half of this year than in any other year since the UN started counting the bodies in 2009; that Taliban fighters are now active in 70 per cent of Afghanistan; that the Taliban controls more than a dozen districts in Afghanistan; that ISIL fighters are increasingly active in Afghanistan; that the gains Afghanistan has made in women’s rights are backsliding; that the gains Afghanistan has made in children’s rights are backsliding; that the gains Afghanistan has made in democratic elections are backsliding — all these things may be found in Afghanistan, but much of the responsibility for them lies elsewhere.”

Remember the wider context: number of deaths in Afghanistan, 1989 – 2017

August 15, 2018

Inevitably, from time to time, you tweet something out without having properly processed it.  This piece of data now strikes me.  It comes from the highly credible Uppsala Conflict Data Program.  A problem is judging accurately the level of casualties in the Afghan series of conflicts.  But this data, with that caveat, works as a good context-setter for the debates over casualty levels in contemporary Afghanistan.  It hadn’t quite sunk in for me that the current levels of violence appear to be significantly higher than the worst excesses of the Taliban vs Northern Alliance civil war period…


July UN statistics:

British troops confirmed for Afghanistan

July 13, 2018

Summary: Over 400 British troops to deploy to Afghanistan in “non-combat” roles

Image result for british troops in kabul 2018

The idea was being floated in April/May that the US had asked the UK to send more soldiers to Afghanistan.  This was being mulled by the British government.  Reporting now seems to confirm that 440 soldiers will now be sent, effectively doubling the UK contribution.

BBC, 10 July 2018: The UK is to send 440 more troops to serve in non-combat roles in Afghanistan, the prime minister will announce at the Brussels Nato summit.

The commitment to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan will take the total number of UK troops in the country to 1,090.

Around half of the troops will deploy from the Welsh Guards in August and the remainder will follow by February 2019.

They will help “bring the stability and security that the Afghan people deserve,” Theresa May said.

“Non combat” generally means training the Afghan security forces, providing a small UK headquarters and intelligence presence in the capital as well as all associated logistics.  I doubt they will be deployed anywhere beyond Kabul.  The only exception might be special forces.

Close training of Afghan personnel always holds out the risk of “insider attacks”, whereby a rogue, confused or pro-Taliban recruit suddenly turns his gun on international trainers.  This was a significant problem just before NATO withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014, where massive training efforts were underway in order to get the Afghan security forces ready for handover.  The issue has gone away mainly because much less hands on training is undertaken by international forces and because many safety and security features were added to protection the international troops, including having an armed guard watching their back all the time.  On the 7th July, an American soldier was killed and two injured in the first insider attack in over a year.

Global ulema peace pressure on Taliban

July 13, 2018

Image result for global islamic summit afghanistan

Summary: Pressure on Taliban as “their war” becomes illegal according to Islam

The Taliban seem to faced with having their war with the Afghan government and people declared illegal.  This from Arab News:

JEDDAH: The International Ulema Conference on Peace and Security in Afghanistan has called for an end to the violence in the country, saying fighting between Muslims was strictly prohibited in Islam.  Under the patronage of Makkah Gov. Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, senior ulema, or Islamic scholars, from Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world said it was important the crisis in the country has “a supporting religious reference.”  Also present at the conference, which began on Tuesday, were the Saudi minister of Islamic affairs, Sheikh Abdullatif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh; Imam of the Grand Mosque, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid; and senior ulema member and member of the Ifta permanent committee and adviser at the Saudi royal court, Abdullah Al-Mutlaq.  Speaking to Arab News, the special envoy to the Afghani president, Mohammed Akram Khpalwak, said: “The gathering of these Muslim scholars is of great importance to us as they agreed that fighting is among Muslims is strictly prohibited in Islam.”

Following an Afghan ulema fatwa ruling against suicide bombing (that the Taliban attacked) and Ashraf Ghani’s unilateral ceasefire initiative in June, which seemed to sweep the Taliban along, pressure seems to be building on the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.

The Taliban are rejecting this (Taliban website offline at time of writing) but a global Islamic summit backed by 2000 Islamic scholars has got to give them pause for thought.

Meaningful Ceasefire?

June 20, 2018

Summary: President Ghani takes a bold gamble by announcing a unilateral government ceasefire.  The Taliban, to the surprise of many, responded similarly, resulting in an unprecedented three day cessation of hostilities.  The positive, optimistic and highly emotional response from all Afghans was overwhelming, heightened by a highly public and popular pro-peace march from Helmand to Kabul.  Despite Ghani announcing an extension to the ceasefire, the Taliban appeared to have resumed fighting.  The Taliban claim that the ceasefire proved Taliban’s discipline and unity and their wide support from the population.  This latter claim is dubious and the Taliban may struggle to sustain a summer offensive if the population is so demonstrably protesting against them.  The powerful popular embrace of the ceasefire is unlikely to be forgotten and the Taliban now appear strategically wrong-footed.  It takes the country into uncharted waters with a whole range of “what ifs”…    Taliban and police  

In terms of insurgent violence, 2018 started particularly unpleasantly in Afghanistan, with multiple indiscriminate terror attacks from the Taliban and Islamic State striking the capital, as well as insurgent operations across the country.  However, in February, there was a minor flurry of peace “chatter”.  The Taliban wrote a “letter to the American people”, calling for dialogue with the US in what looked like an attempt to pressurise the United States by bypassing the government and appealing to the citizens directly.  The Afghanistan expert, Barnett Rubin, had some media exchanges with the Taliban, criticising the group for failing to engage with the Afghan government.  The Taliban’s parting shot seemed to rule out any option for a ceasefire: “unless US talks directly to Taliban about ending occupation, no meaningful ceasefires or dialogue b/w Afghans can take place.”

On 28 February, President Ghani reached out again to the Taliban, offering condition-free talks, political recognition and possible prisoner releases in exchange for a ceasefire.  The Taliban’s response appeared cool.

In late March, more terror attacks saw the emergence of a hitherto unseen element in Afghanistan: a small grassroots anti-war protest movement originating in Helmand province, seemingly in spontaneous response to a terrorist bombing of wrestling match in Lashkar Gah on 23 March.  Around 13 people were killed and dozens wounded at a wrestling match.  The protest gathered a very positive media profile.

“Something remarkable is happening in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan. The people of Helmand province are protesting against the war and asking the government and the Taliban to stop killing civilians.

This protest would be less remarkable if it were a generic call to peace. Instead, the men and women of Helmand are planning to take the call to the Taliban, announcing that they would march to Taliban-held territory to press for their demands for a ceasefire and civilian protection. This is an act of immeasurable courage in an area where people strive to appear neutral between the government and the Taliban just to survive.

But if this movement had to come from anywhere in Afghanistan, it would be Helmand. The province has been one of the areas hardest hit by the bloody war that is increasingly preying on women and children.” 

Over the years, several sporting and public events have been targeted in Helmand and Kandahar.  But this incident became a catalyst for a local outpouring of war-weariness and anger against the continual civilian casualties inflicted by, primarily, the Taliban.  A “Helmand Peace March”, formed initially from small numbers of Helmandis, started a march that ultimately carried them to Kabul.  The media amplified this initiative which looked to be a genuine grassroots gesture of exasperation and anger at the continued conflict:

People across Afghanistan have expressed their support of the Helmand protestors and lawmakers in Afghanistan’s parliament also came out in support of the move.  Last week dozens of women from Helmand joined the protest by setting up their own sit in camp, alongside the men’s, outside the stadium in Lashkargah City.  The sit-in protest was launched following a deadly suicide car bombing near Ayub Khan Stadium last month, when spectators were leaving a wrestling match. At least 16 people were killed and almost 50 others were wounded in the explosion.”

By April, this had become a clear, strong, statement against indiscriminate violence.  As the movement gained momentum, the Taliban, on 25 April, announced their annual spring offensive, promising (and delivering) renewed terror attacks.  The capital of Farah province, in south-western Afghanistan, fell briefly to the Taliban on 15 MayOn 18 May the Taliban issued a statement that some media wrongly interpreted as a call for a ceasefire but which in reality was an attempt to cause defections amongst the ranks of Afghan government forces:

“Due to the very high number of casualties being suffered by the Kabul administration police and other forces (forecasted to increase even further) that naturally entails more grief and sorrow for the Afghan families hence the Islamic Emirate – to establish final proof – declares a general amnesty to all military formations, national army, national police, Arbakis and all employees of the regime to safeguard their lives and wealth.”

In late May, the US commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson, said that behind the scenes discussions between the Taliban and the government were ongoing.  This didn’t really help much – it is reasonable to work on the assumption that the Taliban and Afghan government have lines of communications open more or less all the time.  There was a slight sense that the Taliban were considering Ghani’s offer.  By Taliban standards this was positive enough in itself, but on 4 June, a suicide bomber struck a large gathering of Muslim clerics in Kabul.  They were gathered to issue a fatwa (Islamic ruling) against suicide bombing attacks.  At least seven were killed.

On 7 June, President Ghani announced that Afghan government forces were to respect a unilateral and unconditional seven day ceasefire over Eid, from 12 to 20 June.  The Taliban were invited to reciprocate.  Rather than outright rejection of the offer, the Taliban said they were considering it.  On 9 June, the Taliban announced a shorter, three-day, ceasefire from 15 to 17 June.  These three days would overlap with the government ceasefire.

 “In order that our countrymen participate in Eid prayers and other festivities with complete confidence during the joyous days of Eid, the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate must strictly comply with the following directives: 1 – All Mujahideen are directed to cease all offensive operations against the domestic opposition forces during the first, second and third day of Eid”

The Taliban were very keen to emphasise that they had not been under pressure from anyone do call a ceasefire.  During the government part of the ceasefire, there was considerable scepticism about the Taliban’s intentions, particularly as the Taliban continued to launch attacks.  However, the Taliban honoured their ceasefire and this gave rise to genuinely unprecedented scenes of Taliban intermingling with citizens and government forces in the cities in displays of friendship and happiness.  Celebration spread rapidly: to many observers, Afghan and international alike, it was perhaps difficult to understand the warmth of the embraces between such bitter opponents.  Tajik politician, Amrullah Saleh, warned that the rapid and uncontrolled movement of Taliban into the city to meet their fellow countrymen might presage a Taliban “Tet Offensive” surprise attack.

President Ghani attempted to capitalise and extend upon this successful initiative.  He announced the government side of the ceasefire would be extended by another ten days, to 30 June.  The Taliban rejected this.  Their ceasefire ended on 17 June (as the Helmand Peace March symbolically arrived in Kabul) and attacks were once again being recorded on 18 June and beyond.

What does it mean?  A few thoughts.

The war-weariness of the population (and willingness to embrace Taliban fighters in spite of everything) was self-evident.  The popularity of this brief pause from the fighting was clear.  We seem to be returning to “normal” levels of conflict, but Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network convincingly argues that this genie cannot be put back in the bottle.  President Ghani should get credit and support for his initiative – and he should push for other ceasefires and reach out further to the Taliban.  Credible international interlocutors (UN, NGOs, international experts, such as Barnett Rubin, and academics) could also support this.  The US-led military coalition, already a greatly reduced force from its peak in 2011, could explicitly link reduction in fighting levels to a reduction in foreign military presence – the Taliban’s main objection.  This can be a building block to confident and credible negotiations between Taliban and government.

For the Taliban, this is probably given them cause for some urgent re-appraisal, given all they have to offer this summer is more of the same bombing and killing – in a conflict which, since 2014, has been overwhelmingly one of Afghan Muslim against Afghan Muslim.  Further popular spontaneous protest against them will not be a good look.   Although they claim (with little justification) that the ceasefire showed the high level of popular support for the Taliban, they may privately understand that this was mostly a government and people unified against them and that the “popularity” they point to was directed more at low level fighters willing to embrace their fellow citizens rather a gesture of support for the Taliban’s ethos and methods.  How does this impact on their approach this year?  We might expect some caution over targeting overtly civilian targets and some quick denials if Islamic State launch indiscriminate attacks – as they surely will.

The ceasefire and the popular reaction to it seemed to take most actors by surprise.  It was rapid and chaotic.  This can be both helpful and unhelpful.  It shows unambiguously what can be achieved if there is popular support that sends a clear message against violence.  It showed that there needn’t be a break down into a welter of small and large shooting violations.

But ceasefires can be spoiled easily – by Pakistan (whose relationship with the Taliban still remains opaque and suspect), Islamic State, rogue groups or by simple misunderstanding.  The two isolated terror incidents that took place in Nangarhar during the ceasefire were likely by Islamic State.  Spontaneous intermingling of less-than-disciplined armed groups holds the prospect of accidental or intentional outbreaks of shooting.  Amrullah Saleh’s fear of a “Taliban Tet”, as a result of hundreds of Taliban entering and re-entering government held towns and cities doesn’t seem to have materialised – this time.  But a new ceasefire might not be so straightforward next time: spoilers may be better placed to initiate disruption.

The risks of spoilers notwithstanding, Afghanistan might now see more grassroots peace initiatives.  The Helmand Peace March might continue – perhaps even formalising itself into some kind of quasi-political lobbying movement.  Or new national and local movements may develop.  This is positive but might point to a loss of control over the process by government and Taliban.  There is also the chance of local insurgent infighting: there has already been a report of local Taliban wanting to continue a ceasefire against the instructions from the Taliban leadership.  Perhaps spontaneous local ceasefires might become the new normal?

The Taliban have made two big claims about the ceasefire from their perspective.  The first is probably true: that it shows the control that the Taliban leadership have over its disparate groups of fighters by organising and enforcing such a nationwide cessation of hostilities.  The second claim, that it demonstrates how popular the Taliban are in the hearts and minds of the people, is absolutely false.

Even if the conflict continues in its current form for years (which, regrettably, is still a very plausible outcome), this unique ceasefire released an optimistic outburst from the Afghan population that will be remembered for a long time.  It could well be seen as the “tipping point” that analysts point to as the moment that an end to the conflict became possible.

Particular developments to watch out for in the coming weeks:

  • Spoiler activity
  • Emergence of more grassroots movements and local ceasefire deals
  • Tensions within the Taliban
  • Taliban statements about talks



January – spike of terror attacks in Kabul

14 February: Taliban issue “letter to the American people”

23 February: Barnett Rubin: “Thesis on peacemaking in Afghanistan”

26 February: Taliban state they are prepared to enter talks with the United States

27 February: Rubin response to Taliban:

The flaw in your call for dialogue is that it is addressed only to Americans, not your fellow Afghans. You accuse Afghans opposing you of “committing treason against our nation,” but the government of Afghanistan, corrupt and divided as it may be, is recognized by every nation in the world—not just Washington and its allies. Your dialogue with the U.S. government cannot replace dialogue with that government”

27 February: Taliban respond to Rubin:

If we agree on ending occupation, talks b/w Afghans with or without international mediation will bear fruit.”>

28 February: Ashraf Ghani offers peace deal to Taliban.  Offers political framework for peace dialogue with a ceasefire and Taliban recognised as a political group.  Taliban must respect law, Taliban prisoners may be freed and names struck off blacklist.

“The offer, made at the start of an international conference aimed at creating a platform for peace talks, adds to a series of signals from both the Western-backed government and the Taliban suggesting a greater willingness to consider dialogue.

Ghani proposed a ceasefire and a release of prisoners as part of a range of options including new elections, involving the militants, and a constitutional review as part of a pact with the Taliban to end a conflict that last year alone killed or wounded more than 10,000 Afghan civilians.

“We are making this offer without preconditions in order to lead to a peace agreement,” Ghani said in opening remarks to the conference attended by officials from around 25 countries involved in the so-called Kabul Process.

“The Taliban are expected to give input to the peace-making process, the goal of which is to draw the Taliban, as an organisation, to peace talks,” he said, adding that he would not “pre-judge” any group seeking peace.”

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1 March: RFE/RL, The Afghan Taliban gave a cool reception to President Ashraf Ghani’s offer of political recognition and a truce while representatives from more than 20 countries voiced support for his peace plan.>

12 March: the Diplomat – Taliban “studying the proposal”  Fruitless or a Breakthrough? Making Sense of Ashraf Ghani’s Peace Offer to the Taliban: Is the Afghan president’s bold gambit doomed to failure?…a Taliban leader reportedly stated that, “the United States and Afghanistan have to pitch realistic and non-bullying peace proposals. The Taliban are willing and ready to give a careful read to sensible proposals.” Pasted from <>

23 March: A suspected suicide bomber has killed at least 13 people and injured dozens more in a car bomb attack on a sports stadium in the Afghan province of Helmand.

The blast happened at a wrestling match at the Ghazi Muhammad Ayub Khan stadium in the region’s capital Lashkar Gah. Pasted from <>

27 March:  Uzbekistan  called on the Taliban insurgent group to accept a ceasefire and offered to host peace talks between the Afghan government and the insurgent group.

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2 April: Helmand Peace Protest Gathers Momentum

People across Afghanistan have expressed their support of the Helmand protestors and lawmakers in Afghanistan’s parliament also came out in support of the move.  Last week dozens of women from Helmand joined the protest by setting up their own sit in camp, alongside the men’s, outside the stadium in Lashkargah City.  The sit-in protest was launched following a deadly suicide car bombing near Ayub Khan Stadium last month, when spectators were leaving a wrestling match. At least 16 people were killed and almost 50 others were wounded in the explosion.”>

7 April: Pakistan calls on Afghan Taliban to join peace process.  Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi urges Taliban to avail the Afghan government’s latest offer of direct talks without delay.>

21 April: Grass roots peace movement in Helmand – Peace Springs in Taliban Heartland?  The Taliban should heed a grassroots movement demanding an end to civilian casualties.>

“Something remarkable is happening in the Taliban stronghold of southern Afghanistan. The people of Helmand province are protesting against the war and asking the government and the Taliban to stop killing civilians.  This protest would be less remarkable if it were a generic call to peace. Instead, the men and women of Helmand are planning to take the call to the Taliban, announcing that they would march to Taliban-held territory to press for their demands for a ceasefire and civilian protection.”

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25 April: Taliban announcement Spring offensive “Al Khandaq”

15 May: The Taliban claimed to have captured the capital of the western province of Farah on Tuesday, while government officials and their American military backers vowed that the authorities would quickly oust insurgents from the city, the first to be overrun by the militants in two years.

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18 May: Taliban issues “amnesty” to any govt forces that defect.

Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding amnesty for Kabul administration employees seeking surrender

“Due to the very high number of casualties being suffered by the Kabul administration police and other forces (forecasted to increase even further) that naturally entails more grief and sorrow for the Afghan families hence the Islamic Emirate – to establish final proof – declares a general amnesty to all military formations, national army, national police, Arbakis and all employees of the regime to safeguard their lives and wealth.”

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31 May: Senior Taliban officials have been secretly negotiating with Afghan officials on a possible ceasefire, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan disclosed Wednesday.

“A lot of the diplomatic activity and dialogue is occurring off the stage, and it’s occurring at multiple levels,” General John Nicholson said in a teleconference with reporters at the Pentagon. He would not identify the figures involved in the negotiations, except to say that they included mid- and senior-level Taliban officials.  Pasted from <>

4 June: Muslim Clerics Bombed Hours After Declaring Fatwa on Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan

“A bomber killed at least seven people in an attack on a gathering of the country’s top Muslim clerics, on the same day the organization declared an Islamic ruling against suicide attacks.

The Afghan Ulema Council was meeting in Kabul on Monday when the attacker struck, detonating his explosives at the city’s Polytechnic University where the council was meeting, the Associated Press reported.”

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7 June: Ghani announces 7 day unconditional ceasefire for the end of Eid celebrations from June 12 to June 20

9 June:  Taliban order 3 day countrywide ceasefire: In order that our countrymen participate in Eid prayers and other festivities with complete confidence during the joyous days of Eid, the Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate must strictly comply with the following directives: 1 All Mujahideen are directed to cease all offensive operations against the domestic opposition forces during the first, second and third day of Eid”

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15, 16, 17 June: Taliban and Afg govt overlapping period of ceasefire

16 June: President Ghani extends govt ceasefire and asks Taliban to do the same

Ashraf Ghani‏Verified account @ashrafghani

“We also request the Afghan Taliban to extend their ceasefire. During the ceasefire, we will provide medical assistance to the wounded Taliban, and will provide them any humanitarian assistance if needed,. Taliban prisoners will also be allowed to contact and see their families.”

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16 June: Amrullah Saleh highly critical of ceasefire, warns of Taliban “Tet offensive”:

“All 12 instruction of @ashrafghani to ANDSF & d governors in regards to d ceasfire hv been violated.If this ceasfire ends 4 any reason it will mean a TALIBAN TET OFFENSIVE.  Countless armed Tlbn are in cities. ANDSF havn’t gone to their territory.They hv infiltrated the NUG space.”

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17 June: Taliban reject ceasefire extension

“A suicide bombing in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Sunday killed at least 10 people during a holiday ceasefire which was further marred after the Taliban said it would not extend the truce ending at midnight”.>

June 17: Taliban claim their ceasefire shows that they are a nationally strong movement and that it demostrated how popular they are amongst the people:

In order that our countrymen may celebrate their Eid festivities in ease and comfort, the Islamic Emirate announced and successfully implemented a three day ceasefire. This ceasefire was not in response to the ceasefire of the Kabul regime but was announced for the wellbeing of the nation and has to an end tonight.  Mujahideen throughout the country are ordered to continue their operations against the foreign invaders and their internal puppets as before.”Pasted from <>

June 17: Afghan peace convoy arrives in Kabul –

“Afghan peace activists have arrived in Kabul after trekking some 700 kilometers on foot calling for an end to Afghanistan’s nearly 17-year war.  The Helmand Peace Convoy reached the Afghan capital early on June 17 chanting slogans including “We want peace” and “Stop the war, after traveling for more than a month. The march kicked off in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, which is largely under Taliban control.

It began with a group of nine men and picked up around 40 supporters during the journey.”

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17 June: Reuters

“The Afghan Taliban said their three-day Eid ceasefire, which ends on Sunday, proved the unity of their movement and its ‘wide national support’ as the presidential palace extended its own ceasefire with the militants by 10 days.” Pasted from <>


June 18: Taliban attack Afghan police in Tagab district of Kapisa

“Early on June 18, Taliban fighters attacked police posts in the eastern province of Kapisa’s Tagab district, leaving two police officers wounded, the provincial deputy police chief said.”

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