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Taliban continue to target former members of the previous government.

January 13, 2023

Summary: Since the Taliban took power in August 2021, former members of the previous government have been hunted and targeted for revenge attacks, including illegal detention, violence, torture, “disappearance” and execution.  A very difficult environment for journalists limits the amount of reliable information available and makes the risk of reprisals difficult to assess.  It is highly likely that such persecutions will continue.  The risk of aggressive targeting looks to include relatively low profile former officials as well as family members.

In August 2021, when the Ghani government collapsed and the Taliban took control over Kabul and, de facto, the rest of the country, Taliban media representatives were quick to offer “amnesty” for former members of the government and of the security forces.  Many analysts and observers were sceptical.  The indications from Taliban soldiers during the fighting over the previous summer were not encouraging.  During fighting in June 2021, before the capital fell, the Taliban executed 22 Afghan Special Forces soldiers (who were a component of the NDS) who had surrendered after running out of ammunition.[1] 

The amnesty was never adhered to.  Many members of the government and armed forces – including those at particularly high risk – interpreters, air force pilots and members of the NDS, the former intelligence service – managed to escape abroad.  Many others, however, were unable (or chose not) to escape and remained in Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban took power, former members of the previous government have been hunted and targeted for revenge attacks.[2]  Former members of the government, therefore, continue to be at very high risk of illegal detention, torture (to extract information or as punishment), “disappearance” and summary execution.[3] 

In November 2021, Human Rights Watch noted:

“Taliban forces in Afghanistan have summarily executed or forcibly disappeared more than 100 former police and intelligence officers in just four provinces since taking over the country on August 15, 2021, despite a proclaimed amnesty, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.”[4] 

In April 2022 a New York Times study developed this research further and put the figure at closer to 500.  It is highly likely that many other deaths and disappearances remain unaccounted for:

“The revenge killings were widespread, touching every region of the country, shattering families and communities, and giving a lie to the Taliban’s promises of tolerance and moderation.  After initially denying that such killings were occurring, the Taliban leadership has come to acknowledge some of them, though has insisted that those acts were the work of rogue commanders and not an authorized campaign.  But the number of killings, and their ubiquity, might suggest otherwise. So would their ruthlessness, including summary executions that were captured on video…”[5]

A UNAMA report, ‘Human Rights in Afghanistan, 15 August 2021 – 15 June 2022’, summarised the human rights situation since the Taliban came to power.  With regard to the plight of former members of the Afghan armed forces it stressed the following findings:

“On 17 August 2021, the de facto authorities announced an amnesty for former government officials and Afghan National Security and Defense Force members. This amnesty does not, however, appear to have been consistently upheld, with UNAMA recording at least 160 extrajudicial killings of former government and security officials by members of the de facto authorities between 15 August 2021 and 15 June 2022.

UNAMA is concerned about the impunity with which members of the de facto authorities appear to have carried out human rights violations. UNAMA’s report details extrajudicial killings of individuals accused of affiliation with armed groups, as well as cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments and extrajudicial killings of individuals accused of ‘moral’ crimes and the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials…Over the reporting period, UNAMA documented…160 extrajudicial killings, 178 arbitrary arrests and detentions, 23 instances of incommunicado detention and 56 instances of torture and ill-treatment of former ANDSF and government officials carried out by the de facto authorities.”[6]

In September 2022, Afghan media reported the following case:

“A former member of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) has died after being detained and severely tortured by the Taliban in a prison.  According to sources, the victim’s name was Khan Mohammad and he was a resident of Surobi district of Kabul.  About a week ago, he was arrested near his home in Kabul and taken to the prison of the Taliban Intelligence Directorate.

Mohammad’s body was handed over to his family members at 9:00 pm on Wednesday night this week.  The victim’s friends confirm that he died of deep wounds just two hours after being released.  So far, the motive behind his detention is not yet reported and the Taliban have not commented on the case either.

Previously, many cases of arrest, torture and even killing of former military personnel by the Taliban have been reported.”[7]

A similar incident against a former NDS officer was reported in December 2022:

“A former national security officer was killed mysteriously in southern Kandahar province.  Independent sources identified the victim as Mujahid Barak, explaining that he disappeared last Thursday in the vicinity of the 4th police district of Kandahar city.  According to sources, the body of this person was found on Friday (December 16th) in Mianko mountains, PD9, Kandahar city.

Mujahid Barak served in the National Directorate of Security (NDS) of during the former republic government.  Mujahid’s relatives said that he was killed by the Taliban. But the Taliban in Kandahar have not commented on how this NDS officer was killed.

Mysterious killing of members of the former Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in Kandahar is not unprecedented. Not long ago, numerous ANDSF members were killed in Spin Boldak district.”[8]

There have been several similar reports in January 2023.[9]  The information environment in Afghanistan is extremely difficult: journalists are harassed and targeted if they report information that is perceived by the Taliban to be critical of them.  Humanitarian organisations will struggle to investigate reports because of the still volatile security situation. It is likely that there are many more incidents of harassment, illegal detention, violence and killings going unreported.


[1] ‘Taliban executes 22 Afghan commandos who surrendered – witnesses’, TRT World, 13 July 2021, https://www.trtworld.com/asia/taliban-executes-22-afghan-commandos-who-surrendered-witnesses-48333

[2] Scollen, M., ‘Taliban Takes Revenge On Former Security Forces’, RFE/RL, 12 Oct. 2021, https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-revenge-afghan-security-forces/31505696.html and  Rubin, T., ‘Afghans who helped U.S. face Taliban revenge if we don’t save them now’, Trib Extra, 22 Oct. 2021, https://triblive.com/tribextra/trudy-rubin-afghans-who-helped-us-face-taliban-revenge-if-we-dont-save-them-now/

[3] ‘Dozens of former Afghan forces killed or disappeared by Taliban, rights group says’, BBC News, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59474965

[4]  ‘No Forgiveness for People Like You’, Human Rights Watch, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/11/30/no-forgiveness-people-you/executions-and-enforced-disappearances-afghanistan

[5] Marcolini, B., Sohail, S., and Stockton, A., ‘The Taliban Promised Them Amnesty.  Then They Executed Them’, The New York Times, 12 Apr. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/04/12/opinion/taliban-afghanistan-revenge.html?te=1&nl=opinion-today&emc=edit_ty_20220412

[6] ‘UN releases report on human rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover’, UNAMA press release, 20 July 2022, https://unama.unmissions.org/un-releases-report-human-rights-afghanistan-taliban-takeover#_ftn1

[7] ‘Taliban Rebels Brutally Kill a Former NDS Member’, Hasht e Subh Daily, 9 Sep. 2022, https://8am.media/eng/taliban-rebels-brutally-kill-a-former-nds-member/

[8] ‘Former NDS Officer Mysteriously Killed in Kandahar’, Hasht-e Subh Daily, 17 Dec. 2022, https://8am.media/eng/former-nds-officer-mysteriously-killed-in-kandahar/

[9] https://www.afintl.com/en/202301055100

Kabul still very vulnerable to terror attacks.

December 16, 2022

On Monday December 12, a terror attack, including a suicide bomber, targeted a hotel in Kabul frequented by Chinese workers.  The attack was claimed by Islamic State and this seems to be the most likely explanation.  The building caught fire for a period.  The number of casualties are still unclear.  China has admitted to some injuries amongst its citizens.  But neither the Taliban nor Chinese regimes are known for openly sharing information.  One hospital reported three dead and 18 injured.  In other security incidents, the Taliban have prevented journalists from accessing the area, interviewing witnesses and assessing likely casualties. On some occasions after incidents the Taliban have reportedly beaten journalists to prevent the Taliban losing control of the media narrative.

The attack on Chinese workers came only days after Chinese diplomats held talks with the Taliban regime.  China has been a serious investor in Afghanistan since 2001, notably with the Aynak copper mines, and may yet play a part in boosting the Taliban’s political credibility and developing the Afghan economy.  The Taliban cannot afford to embarrass the Chinese regimeThe Russian embassy had recently experienced a nearby explosion.  On 13 December China appeared to have advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan.

The city is still very vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  This time the Taliban have the role of defensive, anti-terrorist security forces, protecting the people and infrastructure of the city against insurgent groups such as Islamic State.  The Taliban security forces do not look particularly capable and protecting a large city is extremely hard – as the international community found out over a period of twenty years while the Taliban were the prime assailants.  International groups – NGOs, aid agencies, embassies, diplomats and associated infrastructure will remain viable targets for Islamic State.  The Taliban will struggle to match this terror threat and will give a harsh response to anyone who points out Taliban failings – journalists in particular.

Ethnic groups and minorities are also at risk from terror attacks.  Islamic State is believed to be deliberately targeting the Shia Muslim Hazara community in Kabul (and elsewhere).  From Islamic State’s perspective, anything that undermines the Taliban’s diplomatic, economic and social position is a worthwhile target.  Triggering a new internal conflict between ethnicities is a high priority for Islamic State.

A non-exhaustive list since 2021:

15 October 2022: “News sources reported Saturday evening that the blast was heard from the second security district of Kabul.  Kabul Police Command spokesman confirmed the blast and announced that the explosion occurred next to the wall of a security checkpoint in the second security district.”[1]

30 September 2022: “A suicide bomb attack on an education center in Kabul has killed at least 25 people, most of whom are believed to be young women, in the latest sign of the deteriorating security situation in the Afghan capital.”[2]

5 August 2022: “The Islamic State (IS) militant group claimed responsibility for a deadly blast on Friday in a Shi’ite residential area in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.  Police said at least eight people were killed and 18 wounded in the blast.”[3]

19 April 2022: “At least six people have been killed and 11 others wounded, including students, in a suspected twin suicide bombing outside a boys’ school in western Kabul.”[4]

8 February 2022: “An explosion was reported in the Khair Khana area of Kabul late Feb. 8. Local news sources indicate the blast was caused by a bomb that targeted a Taliban vehicle. No casualties have been reported due to the explosion, though officials may provide updates in the coming hours. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the blast.”[5]

16 January 2022: “A child has died and four Taliban soldiers wounded after a bomb blast in the Afghan capital city of Kabul, the ministry of interior affairs has said.  A roadside mine targeted an Islamic Emirate military vehicle on Sunday in Kabul’s Bagrami district…”[6]

3 January 2022: “An explosion took place in limits of the 11th police district of Kabul on Monday morning, an official said.  Aqil Jan Azam, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said: ‘A landmine went off close to the 11th police district but caused no life or financial losses.’”[7]

17 December 2021:A bomb blast targeted the vehicle of a religious scholar, Mawllawi Abdul Salam Abid…three companions suffered slight injuries…the explosion was due to a magnetic bomb blast.  The incident occurred on Friday afternoon in the Parwan-e-Si area of PD4 of Kabul city.”[8] 

12 December 2021: “The Taliban fighters shot killed a boy who was attending an engagement function in Kabul…Eyewitnesses…said, they were directed to stop for check post and they did but were shot at in the next one.”[9]

10 December 2021: “Two explosions occurred in western Kabul city on Friday afternoon in which two people were killed and four were injured.”[10]

4 December 2021: “A bomb blast rocked Police District 4 of Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on Saturday with no casualties confirmed, Interior Ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti said…This is the third blast in Kabul since Nov. 30.”[11]

2 December 2021: “An armored vehicle of the Islamic Emirate was targeted by a sticky bomb on Thursday morning in Kabul’s Police District 4, General Mobin, spokesman of Kabul security department, told TOLOnews.”[12]

30 November 2021: “At least two people were injured in a blast that occurred in Kabul’s Police District 6 on Tuesday morning, officials said.  General Mobin, spokesman of Kabul security department, said the explosion was due to a mine placed in the area.  No group has claimed responsibility for the explosion.”[13]

17 November 2021: “At least four civilians were killed and two others wounded in a bomb attack targeting a public mini-bus in the western part of Kabul, capital of Afghanistan on Wednesday, an eyewitness said.”[14]

15 November:At least two people were wounded in a roadside bomb blast that occurred on Monday morning in Police District 5 of Kabul city, officials said. Initially there was a report of no casualties, but the spokesman for the Kabul security department, General Mobin Khan, confirmed that two people were injured in the blast.[15]

13 November 2021: “A magnetic bomb attached to a passenger minivan exploded in a heavily Shi’ite area of the Afghan capital Kabul on Saturday, causing an unknown number of casualties…One Taliban official…said six people had been killed and at least seven wounded in the blast in the Dasht-e Barchi area of western Kabul.”[16]

2 November 2021: “More than 20 people have been killed and at least 16 injured in a gun and bomb assault on a military hospital in the Afghan capital Kabul.  An affiliate of the Islamic State group, IS-K, later said it had carried out the attack.”[17]

29 October 2021: “Gunmen on a motorcycle brandished small arms and fired on a broadcast journalist in his car in the Afghan capital of Kabul, lightly wounding him.”[18]

20 October 2021: Interior Ministry Spokesman Qari Saeed Khosti confirmed that an explosion took place in PD3 in Kabul on Wednesday morning, adding that a grenade was hurled at security forces in the Dehmazang area…However eyewitnesses claim four people were wounded in the incident.”[19]

3 October 2021: “At least five civilians were killed in a bomb blast at the entrance to a Kabul mosque Sunday, a Taliban official said, describing the deadliest attack in the Afghan capital since U.S. forces left at the end of August.  There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on Islamic State extremists…”[20]

22 September 2021: “Unidentified gunmen have shot dead a child and injured his father in limits of the 12th police district of Kabul.”[21]

30 August 2021: “The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on Kabul airport on Monday as the United States rushes to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan.”[22] 

26 August 2021: “The Islamic State in Khorosan Province (ISKP) has claimed responsibility for the deadly explosions which occurred on Thursday evening, local time, amid ongoing evacuations from the country in the wake of the Taliban takeover.  More than 160 people, including 13 United States troops, were killed, according to media reports.”[23]


[1] https://iranpress.com/content/67564/blast-reported-afghanistan-kabul

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/2022/09/30/asia/kabul-explosion-education-center-intl-hnk/index.html

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blast-hits-afghanistans-capital-kabul-official-2022-08-05/

[4] https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/many-students-killed-and-wounded-explosions-outside-boys-school-kabul

[5] https://crisis24.garda.com/alerts/2022/02/afghanistan-explosion-reported-in-khair-khana-area-of-kabul-late-feb-8

[6] https://news.cgtn.com/news/2022-01-16/One-child-dead-4-soldiers-wounded-in-Kabul-explosion-16S2zj6QZc4/index.html

[7] https://pajhwok.com/2022/01/03/explosion-rocks-kabul-causes-no-damage/

[8] https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-175927

[9] https://www.khaama.com/taliban-guns-down-boy-in-kabul/

[10] https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-175823

[11] https://oriental.news/2021/12/04/blast-rocks-kabul-no-casualties-confirmed/

[12] https://twitter.com/TOLOnews/status/1466280727474024449

[13] https://tolonews.com/afghanistan-175685

[14] http://www.news.cn/english/asiapacific/2021-11/17/c_1310316812.htm

[15] https://tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan-175465

[16] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blast-hits-shiite-area-afghan-capital-kabul-residents-official-2021-11-13/

[17] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-59133026

[18] https://www.voanews.com/a/journalist-survives-attack-by-gunman-in-kabul-/6292593.html

[19] https://ariananews.af/grenade-thrown-at-security-forces-in-kabul-city/

[20] https://www.npr.org/2021/10/03/1042830210/kabul-afhanistan-mosque-attack-taliban?t=1637225856922

[21] https://pajhwok.com/2021/09/22/6-year-old-gunned-down-father-wounded-in-kabul/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

[22] https://www.france24.com/en/asia-pacific/20210830-rockets-target-kabul-airport-as-us-forces-rush-to-complete-afghan-pullout

[23] https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/08/1098602

The Taliban don’t know what to do about Afghanistan’s problems

October 11, 2022

A version of this article appeared in the Nine Dash Line Journal in September 2022.

Last March, I was preparing to grudgingly welcome the Taliban’s long overdue opening of Afghanistan’s education system to girls and young women. I was intending to advise caution: educational privileges for women could be stopped at any time, and receiving a viable curriculum would depend on many other factors that the Taliban still controlled, such as resources, subjects, access, chaperoned movement, and appropriate teachers. At the last minute, the Taliban reversed their decision, offering little clear articulation for their sudden change of plan and demonstrating spectacularly poor management of policy and presentation.

Afghanistan’s parlous state

After twelve months of Taliban rule, it is no surprise to find that Afghanistan remains in a parlous state. The Taliban inherited a weak and war-torn state (largely caused by themselves), and 75 per cent of their government budget is dependent on international community handouts. Although they had twenty years to come up with a concept of governance, the Taliban have flailed — they are cautious, incoherent, ineffective, lacking in transparency, and entirely devoid of inclusivity. They appear more concerned with maintaining internal cohesion and enforcing ‘morality’ than with establishing a competent government.

Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian challenges have already been well-documented — unemployment, famine, and population displacement. Poverty levels have led to desperate measures, including selling children and body parts. Now, flash floods are compounding this tragedy. Although the information is harder to verify, ‘ugly’ stories concerning the impact on society (particularly the Taliban’s vision of the role of women) are also emerging, telling of suicides, self-immolation, disappearances, murders, rapes, and forced and child marriages.

A collapse back into civil war is not inevitable, but the Taliban are clearly struggling to move from an insurgency to a government.

Traditional approaches from the international community — offering aid in exchange for engagement and human rights concessions — have made little headway. Sanctions are hurting the population. The Taliban’s reprehensible approach to human rights has made dialogue difficult. The Taliban’s response to internal dissent has been brutal. Female demonstrators, protesting the education ban, are dispersed by whip or by gun, or, more ominously, have simply disappeared. Journalists are harried, beaten, and killed. There are multiple credible reports of killings of previous government members and of civilians suspected of supporting anti-Taliban groups. Armed resistance to the Taliban is developing in two forms: indigenous forces, such as the National Resistance Front (NRF), and international terrorist forces, such as the Islamic State. Neither yet controls significant numbers of fighters or territory.

A collapse back into civil war is not inevitable, but the Taliban are clearly struggling to move from an insurgency to a government. The implied direction of the country so far is not encouraging, but it is hard to make firm judgements. Analysis of conditions remains difficult: journalism is extremely hazardous, and the Taliban regime has harassed or violently targeted much of the Afghan media. Think tanks, NGOs, aid agencies, and other groups that might normally provide valuable and credible information are also experiencing difficulties operating. The Taliban have always been an exceptionally opaque and difficult-to-penetrate organisation — in that regard, nothing has changed in the 12 months since August 2021. The American drone strike that recently killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul reminded the Taliban leadership that they are never entirely safe, which is likely to keep them somewhat reclusive for purposes of self-preservation.

The Taliban’s approach to governance resembles a religious dictatorship. Women are not included in any form of public office. Religious credentials and status within the Taliban appear to be the key determinant of ministerial appointment or other positions of power. There is little evidence of development in terms of technology, modern skills, or experience in the government ministries, with the possible exception of technologies of intelligence and control (i.e., ID cards and biometric databases) and military capabilities (i.e., restoring the air force).

Factors in the Taliban’s favour are time-sensitive

Certain factors are operating in the Taliban’s favour. Fighting is largely absent across the country. They control the reins of government and 99 per cent of the country’s territory and borders. They are, for the moment at least, able to suppress anti-Taliban forms of protest and media. The Taliban look to find favour among parts of the population by placing blame on the international community, and the Americans in particular (e.g., twenty years of devastation, lack of humanitarian aid, and lack of financing for the Afghan banking system). These factors are, however, time-sensitive.

The Taliban’s religious dictatorship comes with a distinct set of problems. The regime appears reliant on a supreme leader, about whom little is known. His accessibility is closely guarded, surrounded by a narrow clique of ‘worthy’ Taliban members in Kandahar, from which he rarely ventures. Such a narrow authoritarian structure will be constantly looking over its shoulder to identify and suppress manifestations of dissent and protest, both within the ranks of the Taliban and across the wider population. Although the Taliban will press on with developing its intelligence service’s ability to monitor, trace, and target anti-Taliban sentiment, it currently relies on crudely violent, and often indiscriminate, forms of social control. Reaching out to the population through reason and conciliation looks beyond the Taliban.

Internal struggles

The Taliban’s self-representation as representing the infallible will of God prohibits doubt or uncertainty. The internal debates of the Taliban remain largely hidden. The Afghan ulema — religious scholars, mullahs, and mawlawi — may have a key role to play in moderating some of the Taliban’s harsher edicts and allowing engagement with the international community. A gathering of around 4,500 Afghan ulema took place in late June 2022, but it seems no real decisions were made, making the effort more of a rubber-stamp exercise to endorse the Taliban’s authority.

There are indications of division between hardliners and moderates, although the nature of the debates is unclear. Some — perhaps many — Taliban believe that women should receive an education. Many Taliban actually send their own daughters to school. There are many highly educated and respected Islamic scholars, inside and outside of the country, who could engage in forms of religious diplomacy to help broker constructive debate. But for the Taliban, to be perceived as losing a religious argument (about the hijab, women’s education, human rights, or application of Sharia law) would damage their credibility.

Religious performativity

This may explain some of the paralysis, caution with decision-making, and failure to explain themselves to the population. Perhaps this is why much of the Taliban’s religious engagement has varied from province to province and has focused on the ‘performative’ aspect — men with guns and whips, harassing, threatening, and beating the population for their choices of clothing, hair length, and music.

There is no evidence yet of a serious attempt to re-work the constitution or to implement Sharia law nationwide. The risk for the Taliban in moving towards their vision of Afghanistan under Sharia law is that they will place themselves at odds with Islamic scholars and Islamic extremists (for example, on the issue of the hijab, women’s education, or human rights in general). The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam (and their ability to explain and justify this interpretation) may be found wanting if they hold it up to public scrutiny. Perhaps this explains why the Taliban have been slow to move on substantive religious issues, focusing instead on beard lengths and clothing.

Over the next year or two, the risks of resistance to the Taliban rule appear to come from six possible directions. Ordered from most to least likely, these are:

  • The National Resistance Front and other provincial armed resistance groups
  • The Islamic State
  • Passive/peaceful popular protests, with women’s protests as a key subset
  • Organised political movements — protests organised around individual leaders may rally sizeable local portions of the population on given issues
  • Breakaway Taliban groups
  • A US (or other) external intervention, such as drone strikes or internal opposition support

At this stage, none of these poses a direct or imminent threat to the Taliban’s control. The absence of nationwide conflict is still greatly in the Taliban’s favour. If the Taliban could come up with a plausible compromise on the issue of women’s education, they might suddenly find themselves with a sizeable chunk of political breathing space. However, if the Taliban’s inertia and inabilities continue to manifest, and the default response to criticism remains brutal, they could be contending with various forms of popular resistance, both peaceful and violent, sooner rather than later.

Spike of violence across Afghanistan

May 4, 2022

Summary: The Taliban are being confronted with two distinct strands of violence – terror attacks from Islamic State and ambushes from an emerging collection of local anti-Taliban groups.  They will struggle to find the capacity to deal with either.

There has been a surge of violence in Afghanistan over the last few weeks.  This has two main forms, terrorist and guerrilla.  Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) emerged in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014.  They struggled to gain territory and influence, having to fight both the Taliban and the Ghani government.   By 2020 they had suffered significant reverses.  Since the return of the Taliban, they have made efforts to return to the fray – with, by their definition, some success.  Women, children, schools, mosques and civilians going about their daily lives are dream targets for ISKP.[1]  They have claimed responsibility for some recent bloody attacks against Sunni and Shia mosques.  The Shia Hazara community look to be bearing the brunt.[2]  ISKP thrive in failing states.  Their ambition in Afghanistan is to trigger inter-factional fighting between Sunni and Shia. 

The Taliban have no love for Shia Muslims either.  Their security forces, impressively equipped with US Army booty, but poorly schooled in the complex arts of counter-insurgency, do not look capable of dealing with terrorism.  They will struggle to convincingly demonstrate that they are protecting Shia citizens of Afghanistan.[3]  The Taliban appeared keen to minimise media reporting of security incidents by targeting journalists to preventing them from accurately reporting.[4]  If the Taliban are unable to protect Afghan citizens, Afghans may arm themselves.  Some Hazara groups look to be doing this, with the intention of defending themselves from ISKP and the Taliban.[5]

The second strand of violence comes from armed groups opposed to the Taliban’s seizure of power.[6]  Often these bands include former members of the Ghani government and its armed forces.  The National Resistance Front (NRF) declared itself as an anti-Taliban movement within days of the Taliban taking Kabul.  It is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud and supported by Amrullah Saleh, a former government intelligence chief and a Vice President at the time of the government collapse.  The NRF have claimed several ambush-style attacks against the Taliban, with a centre of gravity around the provinces of Panjshir and Baghlan, in ideal guerrilla terrain just to the north of Kabul, but sometimes further afield.[7]  Other smaller local anti-Taliban groups appear to be emerging.[8]     

It is very early to gauge where this is going or whether either form of violence will cause the Taliban to falter.  After their own experience with rapid collapse, in late 2001, the Taliban took several years to emerge with a credible insurgency capability tied to a political and propaganda platform.  They had the crucial advantage of a safe haven in western Pakistan.  ISKP do not have any innate popularity in Afghanistan and have always struggled to dominate ground.  Their methods, always brutal, will work against them.  Local Afghan resistance groups may generate more credible momentum in the longer-term, particularly if the Taliban leadership maintain a highly oppressive reliance on religious stricture.  However, if history is any guide, resistance groups will lack focus, bickering over local issues and squabbling over resources.  This will likely dissipate their potential.  And this time, at least, it looks as if the appetite of international powers to invest in and sustain a long-term insurgency is minimal.    


[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/25/afghanistan-surge-islamic-state-attacks-shia

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-61174991

[3] https://www.vox.com/2022/4/23/23038561/afghanistan-terror-attacks-targeted-afghan-minorities

[4] https://twitter.com/Reporterlyaf/status/1520635865089085440

[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/3/hazaras-fear-for-future-as-afghanistan-likely-to-slip-into-chaos

[6] https://gandhara.rferl.org/a/taliban-resistance-former-government-factions/31823881.html

[7] https://8am.af/eng/attack-claim-by-nrf-forces-on-taliban-base-near-balkh-international-airport/

[8] https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-fighting-season-ushers-in-new-anti-taliban-groups/6542148.html

Taliban house to house searches intimidate the population

March 10, 2022

Summary:

Six months after the Taliban’s seizure of power, the Taliban techniques for ability to enforce law and order are based on aggression, coercion, violence and intimidation.  Many social groups appear to be deliberately targeted, including women, activists and journalists.  Disappearances and killings remain a feature of life under the Taliban.  In late February the Taliban initiated an aggressive series of house to house searches in Kabul.

House to house searches

Since the Taliban’s seizure of power in August 2021, many house to house searches have been undertaken by Taliban fighters looking for those they believe oppose them, including former government officials and former security personnel. 

“The Taliban have stepped up their search for people who worked for Nato forces or the previous Afghan government, a report has warned.  It said the militants have been going door-to-door to find targets and threaten their family members…The warning the group were targeting ‘collaborators’ came in a confidential document by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, which provides intelligence to the UN.

‘There are a high number of individuals that are currently being targeted by the Taliban and the threat is crystal clear,’ Christian Nellemann, who heads the group behind the report, told the BBC.  ‘It is in writing that, unless they give themselves in, the Taliban will arrest and prosecute, interrogate and punish family members on behalf of those individuals.’

He warned that anyone on the Taliban’s blacklist was in severe danger, and that there could be mass executions.”[1]

In late February 2022, the Taliban launched a new wave of extensive house to house searches.[2]  The Taliban operation came as a surprise and was large-scale, involving armed fighters, use of multiple checkpoints and aggressive tactics. 

“The Taliban have been carrying out extensive house searches around the Afghan capital, according to residents, a policy the group’s spokesman said was to detect criminal activity but that some Western diplomats said had targeted ordinary citizens.  Taliban administration spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the searches were part of a ‘clearing operation’ and that houses were only raided if there was a specific report of possible criminal activity…Reuters spoke to seven residents around Kabul, whose names are not being published for security reasons, who said the searches appeared indiscriminate and were spreading fear… Since the Islamist group took over the country in August, observers have warned of emerging signs of a crack-down on dissent and reprisals against former security force members and activists.”[3]

The operation took place in several provinces and was aimed at targeting potential opponents of the Taliban.  But the exact motivations – and the intelligence information upon which the searches were based – are a little unclear.  The Taliban have cited targeting of kidnappers and criminals, as well as efforts to seized weapons, and equipment belonging to the former government.  It might even be considered a pre-emptive strike against growing resistance to the Taliban rule amongst some groups.  

“At a news conference on Sunday, the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, insisted that the recent searches were aimed at rooting out ‘kidnappers, thieves, evil elements and other criminals.’ He also dismissed accusations of misconduct, characterizing the operation as ‘professional’ and ‘well-planned.’  The operation began in areas seen as resistant to Taliban rule and comes ahead of spring, long known as Afghanistan’s ‘fighting season,’ when the Taliban would launch offensives against the previous government.”

Now, the insurgents-turned-rulers are contending with a reinvigorated threat from the Islamic State affiliate in the east and a budding armed resistance in the north.”[4]

Dozens of Taliban checkpoints have sprung up across Kabul, part of a broad search operation in several provinces.

Figure 1 Taliban checkpoint in Kabul, March 2022, Victor J. Blue for The New York Times[5]

“Trucks with heavy machine guns stopped at street corners, unloading men in camouflage carrying radios and assault rifles. Going door to door, they barged into homes, tossed open drawers and pored through cellphones — looking for any connection to an armed insurgency…The sweep, which began on Friday, has spanned several provinces and remains underway, is the largest operation of its kind since the Taliban seized power in August and the first carried out in daylight.


The searches stoked alarm among many Afghans, some of whom reported mistreatment and property damage by Taliban forces, and offered the latest evidence that the new Taliban, like the old ones, were relying on police-state tactics to assert their authority and stamp out dissent…The search operation began early Friday as dozens of checkpoints spread across Kabul, initially focused on the city’s northern neighborhoods…Taliban soldiers broke the locks on front doors, damaged televisions and storage boxes, and destroyed yards by digging for contraband, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Kabul residents.  In a country where privacy is sacred, many saw the home intrusions as an unforgivable offense reminiscent of two decades of foreign occupation.”[6]

Either way, such unpredictable Taliban activities – which international forces learnt the hard way only serve to inflame – will keep the population fearful and resentful. 

[1] ‘Afghanistan: Taliban carrying out door-to-door manhunt, report says’, BBC News, 20 Aug. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58271797

[2] Abbasi, F., ‘In Afghanistan, Burning Our Past to Protect Our Future’, Human Rights Watch, 1 Mar. 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/01/afghanistan-burning-our-past-protect-our-future

[3] ‘Taliban begin house searches, sparking fear, diplomatic criticism’, Reuters, 28 Feb. 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taliban-begin-house-searches-sparking-fear-diplomatic-criticism-2022-02-28/

[4] [4] Gibbons-Neff, et al, ‘Taliban Search Operation Echoes Resented U.S. Tactics’, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-resistance.html

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-resistance.html

[6] Gibbons-Neff, et al, ‘Taliban Search Operation Echoes Resented U.S. Tactics’, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/02/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-resistance.html

UN Secretary General Report on Afghanistan: “staggering scale of vulnerability across the country”

February 11, 2022

The UN Secretary General submitted its latest report on Afghanistan to the Security Council on 28 January 2022.  It is a 16-page update on the political, security, economic and humanitarian situation. Some brief highlights [and my comments in square brackets].

Overview

  • Afghanistan is undergoing multiple crises – humanitarian, economic, banking – as well as the lack of an “inclusive” government. 

Conflict

  • The level of fighting has decreased significantly – by 91% over August-December 2021 compared to the same period last year.  Armed clashes dropped from 7,430 to 148.  Nangarhar, Kandahar, Kabul and Kunar still see levels of violence.  An increase in attacks against individual Taliban members as well as some intra-Taliban clashes.
  • Still violence of other kinds, including criminal and local conflicts over land and property, including forced evictions of minority groups, often facilitated or tolerated by the Taliban. 
  • The National Resistance Front [headed by Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh] operate in Panjshir province and part of neighbouring Baghlan.  They are not achieving much.  [But worth remember that in 2002-03, the Taliban were broadly at this point after their defeat…]
  • The Taliban’s security priorities are ISKP and the NRF.  ISKP attacks increased over August–December 2021 compared to the same period in 2020 – from 20 to 152.

Political

  • All government appointees appear to be Taliban, mainly religious scholars and clerics.  Many members of the new government are on the UNSC sanctions list.
  • The 2004 Constitution has been suspended, pending review to ensure laws are compatible with Sharia.  The National Assembly, the Human Rights Commission, Parliament, election management and women’s affairs have all been shut down.

Human Rights

Humanitarian

  • Half the population are in need: “one of the worst food insecurity and malnutrition crises globally” – second drought in four years.  9 million are at emergency levels of food insecurity.  Afghanistan’s GDP has contracted by 40%.
  • Last year, 670,000 were displaced.  This on top of the 5 million displaced since 2012.
  • Impact of economic crisis – women and children at risk from exploitation and abuse – trafficking, selling children, child marriage, recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labour.  Unconfirmed reports of an increase in domestic violence.
  • “staggering scale of vulnerability across the country”

Ukraine and Russia: credible and serious risk of imminent Russian attack

January 14, 2022

US Officials Said Russia Is “Preparing For An Invasion Into Ukraine”

“As part of its plans, Russia is laying the groundwork to have the option of fabricating a pretext for invasion, including through sabotage activities and information operations,” a US official told BuzzFeed News.

This is looking really serious now – and playing out like some kind of Tom Clancy novel.

In my part of the world, Sweden is adopting a more visible defensive posture on the island of Gotland in response to reports of Russia landing craft moving through the Baltic sea, with troops and armoured vehicles in and around the port of Visby.

Sweden’s military said on Thursday (13 January) it was ramping up its visible activities on the Baltic Sea island of Gotland amid increased tensions between NATO and Russia and a recent deployment of Russian landing craft in the Baltic. Moscow has spooked the West by massing troops near Ukraine, sparking fears that it is considering invading. Moscow denies any such plans, saying it can deploy forces on its territory however it chooses. Gotland, Sweden’s biggest island, is strategically important and lies around 330 kilometres from Kaliningrad, the headquarters of Russia’s Baltic Fleet. In 2019 Sweden deployed an updated ground-to-air missile defence system on the island.

Strategic Swedish Island Likely To Reject Russian Request For Harbor Space

In my view it is highly unlikely Russia will attempt any military action in the Baltic at this moment. But it could certainly act as a “shiny thing” distraction tactic, to get Europe looking in a different direction than Ukraine.

Afghanistan in 2022: Less fighting but bleaker humanitarian prospects

January 12, 2022

Summary: Afghanistan in 2022 will see much less violence than the last few years.  There is currently no appetite amongst an exhausted populace for a continuation of conflict.  But expect the year to be dominated by major, overlapping, economic and humanitarian crises that will painfully impact on society.  The Taliban regime will be repressive and unpopular, struggling with basic principles of governance, while deliberately suppressing women’s participation in society and the economy.  Some armed resistance – Islamic State and NRF – is likely: mainly terrorist in nature, in 2022 it will be insufficient to seriously challenge the Taliban.     

FILE – Hundreds of Afghan men gather to apply for the humanitarian aid in Qala-e-Naw, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2021. In a statement Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, the White House announced $308 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, offering new aid to the country as it edges toward a humanitarian crisis since the Taliban takeover nearly five months earlier. (AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov, File)

Although the crumbling of the Afghan security forces and the ceding of territory to the Taliban was gathering pace and clearly visible by late 2020 and early 2021, the collapse of the Ghani government and the rapid return by force of the Taliban in August 2021 took analyts by surprise. 

This time last year, I agonised over the use of cliché as I tried to predict the direction in which 2021 would take Afghanistan.  I thought progress on talks would be limited, that the Taliban were preparing for an uncompromising return to power and we could be looking at a slow slide into civil war.  So I was partly right.  I now think the threat of civil war has temporarily receded – primarily because of sheer exhaustion with war.

The Taliban are not a “popular” movement.  They lack legitimacy of any sort other than the gun.  They won a war and hold the positions of government by force.  Although they have described their regime as “interim”, this looks more likely a delay and distraction tactic rather than a genuine intention to move towards a representative diversity of ethnicities, religions and gender in their administration.  They have no intention of submitting their regime to any kind of popular vote.  That would be a suicidal political risk.  Their tactics include propaganda, suppression and intimidation of journalists and intelligentsia.

The international community reacted to the Taliban’s return with horror and, perhaps inevitably, incoherence.  For centuries, Afghanistan has been a “rentier state”, dependent upon funding from external sources.  In its most recent incarnation, 75% of its government spending came from the international community, predominantly from the US.  Many forms of aid and development support have been frozen.  The Biden government will not be in any haste to unlock the billions of funding they held on behalf of the previous government.  What funding does come from the international community will be conditional and primarily for immediate humanitarian purposes: no one, thus, far, wishes to make things easy for the Taliban.

Afghanistan faces another bleak and difficult year, but perhaps the troubles will be of a different character.  For the moment (and this “moment” may stretch into years), widespread violence will give way to a series of humanitarian and economic crises.  A strict and intolerant Taliban system of government, unsuited for administration and seemingly indifferent to suffering of fellow Afghans, will exacerbate these difficulties.  It seems unlikely that the Taliban will be formally recognised by the international community this year.

After forty years of almost continuous conflict, there does not appear to be any real appetite amongst Afghans for a rapid return to fighting.  This will assist the Taliban as they grapple unimpressively with the complexities of governance.  Their repressive measures to suppressive dissent will be recognisable by dictators over the world.    

But there is armed resistance inside the country.  The National Resistance Front, under Ahmed Shah Massoud’s son Ahmed Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, the former vice-President of the former regime, declared its hand within minutes of the fall of Kabul.  Other than some messy and inconclusive skirmishes in the Panjshir valley that appear long over, it has yet to prove itself as a durable element in Afghan political and military circles.  This does not mean that it should be overlooked.  After the 2002 defeat of the Taliban, they spent years in exile in neighbouring Pakistan, regrouping and developing allies, media networks and resistance capabilities.  Despite somewhat vaingloriously declaring they would stay and fight in the Panjshir, Massoud and Saleh pragmatically decamped to Tajikistan.  If they are going in any direction, they will probably follow a similar path to the Taliban.  They will likely to be forced to play a waiting game, certainly over the next 12 – 24 months.   

Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) will not give its attempts to violently destabilise the country.  Their activities are currently focused on Kabul and the east, in particular Nangarhar.  They are looking to attract Taliban members that may be disillusioned with the compromises (and even boredom) of governance.  Some reports suggest ISKP is reaching out to former members of the military and intelligence communities of the Ghani regime, but this is hard to verify. 

2022 will see lower levels of violence than have been seen for many years.  But this doesn’t mean Afghanistan is moving in a positive direction.  All sides are regrouping and reassessing the new alignments on the chessboard and watching to see how the Taliban perform in their new and unfamiliar positions of responsibility.  They are unlikely to do well.  By the end of 2022, the population may be feeling frustration.  Anti-Taliban factions will be looking to take advantage of the Taliban’s difficulties with social, economic and humanitarian matters.  Expect to see a mix of popular protest and sporadic armed resistance.

Second verse, same as the first…

January 6, 2022

I don’t know enough about Kazakhstan to make an informed comment.  But I can make an emotive one.  The path to the protests, the reactions of the ruler and the deeply disturbing scenes as the confrontation unfolds have been repeated all my adult life.  Why do old men cling on to power – and do so in such corrupt and violent manners?  Power-hungry dictatorships – of whatever political hue – operate and react in the same way.  The goal is to stay in charge at all costs – power for its own sake.  They are not generally very effective at running an economy or accepting and acting on criticism (although Vladimir Putin seems always to play a poor corrupt hand very well).  They scoop up and exploit the assets of the country to maintain their own power and lifestyle.  They rely on oppression, friends and family in key ministries and relentless propaganda.  This is an expensive and inefficient way to run a country.  Small wonder that, for example, a massive, resource-rich country like Russia has a GDP smaller than Italy.

In such a society, it often only needs a simple, single trigger to get people on the streets.  A hike in the price of fuel, the arrest or disappearance of a member of an opposition party or the uncovered excesses of a corrupt minister all fit the bill.  Government, opposition and people are all generally surprised when protests turn violent. 

Poorly trained and heavily armed police and army do the rest.  The Arab Spring was a good example of how things can fall apart quickly.  Gunfire, teargas and rubber bullets were the primary forms of engagement with popular demands.  

Dictators are stuck.  There are no off-ramps.  No one ever retires peacefully once they have a few human rights violations under their belt.  To reduce the repression and invite political reform cries out “weakness”, inviting popular uprisings or a palace coup.  The usual response is to double down with violence, often urged on by fellow members of the card-carrying dictator club, anxious they might be next.  A narrative of “outside provocation” (read as: America, NATO or the West) gushes from government-controlled media.  I see that Russia has warned other countries to keep out of Kazakhstan’s internal affairs, while inserting its own paratroopers into the country.  The VDV are historically known for their ability to defuse angry civilians with tact, negotiation, good-humour and soothing words.  I am doing irony here. 

False narratives and disinformation flood the airwaves.  Some of this is based on manufactured lies – traditional dictatorial bullshit – others on genuine misunderstanding and misperception in fast-moving, volatile and frightening environments.

             Two scenes from the social media footage of recent developments in Kazakhstan I have seen dozens of times over decades:

  • Wide boulevards at night.  Army trucks and light armoured vehicles are attempting to navigate through a shouting crowd of several hundreds of demonstrators running around and between the vehicles and in the road.  The military vehicles are almost certainly trying to extricate themselves as quickly as possible.  I found myself anxiously willing no one to get run over.  It reminded me of the fall of the Soviet Union in the Baltic states where Russian BMP armoured vehicles attempted to drive out of an angry crowd.  Many of the crowd were in front of the vehicle physically trying to push it back.  A BMP does not do nuanced driving.  Nor does it offer wide all-round visibility to the driver, who was almost certainly a frightened, poorly trained, conscript fearing a petrol bomb or being torn apart.  Belching and revving its engine it lurched forwards and crushed some of the protestors.
  • A group of Kazakh army personnel (at least they were well equipped and in military camouflage – but perhaps that passes for a police uniform in those parts).  They had been stopped by an angry crowd.  Sat in the back of their stationary truck they were made to dismount and, pushed and pulled, lie down in submission on the ground, surrounded by hostility.  I remember footage of a bridge in Istanbul, during the so-called “coup” in 2016, in where a group of terrified conscripts were dismounted, disarmed and stripped of their gear. Some were beaten to death.  In the brief footage I saw, the Kazakh troops were not beaten.

Violence and brutality rapidly escalates in situations where no one really understands what is going on and people are scared.  Reaction leads to overreaction.  A terrified young conscript should not ideally be held responsible for the situation a dictator puts him in.   But angry crowds who have just witnessed one of their own being shot or crushed are likely to lynch those that are close to hand.  This is more likely to be a young kid in a uniform in the wrong place at the wrong time than a secret police chief or a corrupt minister.

This is all naïve analytical stuff, I know.  I don’t have a sense for how effective Kazakh political opposition parties are (or even if any exist), but I suspect a lot of angry Kazakh citizens will be aware of the tragedies that are Syria and, closer to home, Belarus. The balance of probability is that they conclude that legitimate protest and reform is not achievable or would come at an appalling cost.  The options are “Syria” or continued repression garnished with shit economy.  Here’s how it plays out:

  1. The protests are crushed violently including by military force from fellow dictators, mainly at Russia’s direction
  2. Many protestors are killed, arrested or “disappeared”– accurate figures will never be known
  3. Additional repressive measures are developed by the Kazakh government, with Russia’s assistance
  4. The population go back to being resentful
  5. Government-controlled media outlets praise the defeat of “NATO gangsters” and warns the west not to consider meddling in the internal affairs of Kazakhstan

Don’t know what the answer is. 

Here are some lyrics from Joe Strummer, taken from the song “Groovy Times”, by The Clash, written in 1978, that speak to the volatility and risks of civil protest and the importance of propaganda to the authorities:

They discovered one black Saturday

That mobs don’t march they run

So you can excuse the nervous triggerman

Just this once for jumping the gun

As they were picking up the dead

Out of the broken glass

Yes it’s number one, the radio said

Groovy times have come to pass!

Migration crisis headed to Europe?

December 10, 2021

Summary: With no positive outcomes for Afghanistan any time soon, people-smugglers report that twice as many Afghans are leaving Afghanistan than they did in 2014

Depressing listening from the BBC’s “Briefing Room” of 9 December 2022.  An impressive selection of experienced Afghanistan analysts (Sekunder Kermani, Mike Martin, Ahmed Rashid, Laurel Miller and Ashley Jackson) gave a uniformly grim overview of the prospects facing the country in the coming months. 

The Taliban’s harsh system seems ill-equipped, unwilling and unable to transform from fragmented guerrilla factions into coherent governance.  The international community offers little other than handwringing concern and a continuation of sanctions in the midst of a “perfect storm” of humanitarian crises.   As Ashley Jackson put it, it is hard to imagine a policy more likely to radicalise Afghanistan, increase the drug trade and drive up migration.  Mike Martin put the chances of disintegration or localised civil war at 50/50 in 2022.    

It seems inevitable that some form of new migration crisis is headed towards Europe, perhaps impacting as early as Spring 2022, according to Mike Martin.  He noted that in October alone, around 300,000 Afghans had moved into Iran from Nimruz province in south-western Afghanistan.  Although Iran is often a final destination because of the black-market employment opportunities, it is also a major springboard for further onward migration into Europe, via two main routes (Turkey-Greece-Italy-France and Turkey-Balkans/Eastern Europe-Germany).  The statistic that shocked me came from the people-smugglers in the area who reported that twice as many Afghans were leaving Afghanistan than they were in 2014.

Having covered quite a few Afghan asylum seeker cases since 2012, up until now, the majority of Afghan asylum seekers to the UK were young, poorly-educated males, in their teens and early twenties.  It seems plausible that a more diverse selection may head to Europe this time, including women, the educated middle class (doctors, lawyers, academics, journalists) and ex-government and ex-military.  This would be a worrying “brain drain” at a time when the country is on its knees.  Perhaps smuggling routes, tactics and techniques are also adapting to bypass European reluctance to see another “2014”.

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