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Where is Afghanistan going?

July 14, 2021

Summary

An aggressive and thus far successful military surge by the Taliban is creating a fear of an imminent Taliban return to power.  This is certainly one possibility, but a collapse of the government does not look likely at present. 

Prospects for Afghanistan

The Taliban are aggressively surging into the power vacuum left by the international departure and it is unclear whether the Afghan government forces have the resolve and capability to resist their advances.  The risk of a new implosion into civil war is very real.[1]  In June 2021, the United States intelligence community warned that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the US withdrawal is complete.[2]

Background

In February 2020 the US and the Taliban signed an agreement intended to prepare the way for the withdrawal of American soldiers, for talks to commence between the Taliban and the Afghan government and for there to be a significant reduction of violence by all parties.  In reality, the violence resumed and increased.  The situation is highly fragile.[3] 

To be clear, the February 2020 agreement was not a peace deal and it was not an agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.  After many months of further delay, in September 2020, the Taliban and the Afghan government finally sat down together.[4]  But the talks have not moved forward since then and the Taliban have continued to fight across the country,[5] with violence levels increasing.  It is unclear how the Taliban envisage their future role in society and government, and how (and even if) they might reintegrate.  Many doubt the Taliban’s negotiating sincerity.  Wider dialogue and reconciliation will pose major challenges.  As one commentator observed in January 2020,

“…the whole thing could unravel when it comes time for intra-Afghan talks…The temporary ceasefire, if agreed upon, may provide a new lease on life to the on-again, off-again peace talks. A more permanent agreement, however, faces a number of pitfalls that could scuttle the ultimate objective of bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan…Who is going to amass what gains and on what terms and conditions in the post-withdrawal Afghanistan is so far a guessing game…the Taliban’s possible inclusion in power-sharing in Kabul is seen with concern for two major reasons: The militia’s desire for power and their world view.”[6]

Current situation

The new US administration has pressed ahead, with unseemly haste, with the final reduction of American troops.[7]  Other residual international forces have followed suit.  Most recent reporting suggests that the US withdrawal is 90% complete and will complete its withdrawal by the end of August 2021.[8] 

The speedy American troop disengagement – which in some areas has resembled flight – has emboldened the Taliban and left the Afghan military dismayed.  The next twelve months will be volatile and the security situation will remain fragile as the Afghan armed forces attempt to regroup and rebalance themselves.  Much depends now on the extent to which the international community – and this predominantly means the United States – continues the flow of money, weapons, equipment, training, logistics and intelligence support to the Afghan government and its military.  Fighting could well intensify, as the Taliban and the Afghan government grapple for territorial control and bargaining chips for any negotiation.  On top of this – and largely lost in the noise of the US withdrawal and the Taliban advances – there are major tensions within the Afghan government leadership.[9]  The hasty US-Taliban peace agreement followed by the precipitous US military departure, in the absence of a wider Afghan discussion and reconciliation, has increased instability.[10]

Most recent UN data for 2021, comparing the casualties in the first quarter of each year since 2009 shows a concerning and significant uptick in casualties in January to March 2021:[11]

It is highly likely that new UN figures – probably due this month – will show a further increase.  The US has been heavily criticised for this very hasty dismantling of its operation.[12]  The Pentagon is concerned that Al Qaeda could once again pose a threat to the US mainland from Afghanistan in as little as two years.[13]  The United States intelligence community judges that the Afghan government could collapse as soon as six months after the US withdrawal is complete.[14] 

In May 2021, the credible American analytical group, The Long War Journal, gave this assessment of areas controlled and contested by the Taliban.  It judged that the Taliban had doubled the areas that they controlled or contested between 2018 and May 2021:

“The number of Afghan districts controlled and contested by the Taliban has nearly doubled since early 2018, according to an ongoing study of the security situation by FDD’s Long War Journal. The expansion of Taliban power in the past three years, even as U.S. and NATO forces were present in the country, is an ominous sign for the future of Afghanistan.  In January 2018, when Resolute Support tried to shut down reporting on the status of districts, LWJ assessed that the Taliban controlled 45 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, or 11 percent, and contested 117, or 29 percent. Today, LWJ assess that the Taliban controls 87 districts, or 21 percent, and contested 214, or 53 percent…Today, the Taliban directly threaten 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals, including Maidan Wardak and Pul-I-Alam, the capitals of Wardak and Logar provinces respectively. These two provinces are outside of the capital of Kabul and are the gateway to Kabul City.”[15]

In early July 2021 it gave an even graver assessment:

“Afghanistan is at risk of complete collapse after the Taliban has made dramatic gains in recent days, striking at the heart of the Afghan government’s base of power in the north while seizing control of large areas of the country – often unopposed by government forces.

The security situation has deteriorated rapidly. In the lax six days alone, the Taliban has taken control of 38 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts – nearly 10 percent of the country – and most all of them in critical areas.

In all, the Taliban currently controls 195 districts and contests another 129 districts…Prior to the Taliban’s offensive, which began in earnest on May 1 – upon expiration of the date that the U.S. government originally committed to completing its withdrawal under the Doha Agreement – the Taliban controlled just 73 districts and contested another 210.

Put simply: The Afghan government controls only a little more than 20 percent of the country at the moment.[16]

As at mid-July 2021, the Taliban are reported to be making extensive and rapid territorial gains across the country, including in northern Afghanistan, an area that is not their traditional heartland.[17]  The Taliban have even claimed to control 85% of the country.[18]  However, caution needs to be applied to any assessment.  The security situation is fluid – and increasingly so at present – in many rural parts of Afghanistan.  We should be careful about attempting to judge who “controls” what piece of land at any given point in time: both the government and the Taliban are prone to giving out inaccurate information, either by accident or design.  Taliban groups can dominate particular routes, towns and villages over prolonged periods, simply by setting up a few checkpoints or mobile Sharia courts, without necessarily formally controlling a district.  The Taliban establish “shadow governors” and aim to create the impression of a governance structure where they get the chance.  Conversely, government forces often define “control” of a village or district simply by running a patrol through it from time to time or by flying the Afghan flag from the roof of the main police or local government headquarters.  Although many districts have been fiercely fought for, others are “wet paper bags” to be yielded without resistance to any armed group that shows up with three men and an AK-47.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the Taliban have made some speedy gains in the last few weeks.  The Long War Journal providing the following assessment, covering the period from April to early July 2021:[19]

Concern over human rights

The Taliban were notorious in the 1990s for a harsh regime.  Human rights are a rapidly increasing concern amongst humanitarian organisations as the Taliban capture many new areas of the country.[20]  Because of the fluidity of the situation, accurate reporting is difficult to access.  But many ethnic and social groups are worried.[21]  There are strong indications that human rights abuses and reprisals are taking place. 

“Many Afghans who hoped the Taliban would reform their extreme views amid ongoing talks with the Afghan government and the U.S. troop withdrawal have been disappointed by the new severe restrictions imposed on the local population in some of the districts that they have recently captured. 

Several residents of Balkh, a district in northern Balkh province that is located 20 kilometers north of the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, confirmed to VOA that the Taliban have distributed leaflets, ordering locals to follow strict rules that are similar to those they imposed on Afghans when they last governed the country from 1996 to 2001.”[22]  

Particular targets appear to women, ethnic minorities and religious groups, media and those who are perceived to have collaborated with the government.  Human Rights Watch have warned that human rights abuse might intensify as the Taliban gain further power:

“Heather Barr, a HRW senior researcher for women’s rights in Asia, said that reports about the Taliban recent crackdown on women and media were ‘not very surprising’ since her organization’s investigation has found that ‘the Taliban’s policies are not that different from what they were in 2001.’ 

It is ‘very concerning indeed for human rights,’ Barr told VOA, adding that ‘some of these abusive attitudes are actually intensifying as they are feeling triumphant in gaining control of more and more territory.’ 

The watchdog group in a report last year said although the Taliban, at least at the leadership level, have portrayed themselves as having reformed their hardline views, they have continued to impose extreme restrictions enforced by the militants.”[23]   

The Taliban appear to purposefully assassinating government military pilots.[24]  There are concerning reports that the Taliban recently executed a large group of Afghan commandos as they surrendered.[25] 

Where is Afghanistan going?

Prospects are extremely bleak for Afghanistan now.  The future looks likely to see much intensified violence.  Various permutations of civil war (either a “stable” civil war, where the government controls the cities and main roads in a broad stalemate, or a more brutal “swirling” civil war, with a collapsed government and a return of ethnic and military warlords) are real possibilities.  The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a credible US government watchdog, described the security situation as “perhaps the most complex and challenging period in the last two decades”.[26]  There are a range of directions in which the country could travel. 

Much depends upon the extent to which the Taliban manage to achieve power and control in the country.  If the Taliban press ahead, aiming at some form of military victory and/or dominant but unaccountable share of governance, they will meet resistance from the government, significant sections of the population and the international community.  Outcomes will be permutations of the following:

  • A continued civil war
  • A return to a highly repressive regime, threatening the human rights of many, but particularly some specific social, ethnic, religious and gender groups
  • A collapsed or splintered state
  • Humanitarian collapse: population displacement, flows of refugees, food insecurity, economic failure, increased drug production and trafficking 

It is at least plausible that the Taliban could reach a reconciliation with the Afghan government and some form of power-sharing deal.  This represents the goal of the Afghan government, Afghanistan’s neighbours and the international community.  The Taliban may or may not recognise that, should they be required to submit their preferred manner of government to the will of the people in a popular vote, they are unlikely to secure much support.  A process that brings the Taliban into the existing government structure would certainly mitigate some of the dangers of the Taliban – a harsh, oppressive regime that abused human rights.  This currently looks unlikely while fighting is ongoing and would likely be a fragile and volatile state of affairs, prone to relapses, even if a deal could be reached. 

At present, the Taliban have the military upper hand, appear very confident and are pushing into hitherto government-controlled areas with relative ease.  Far better, from their perspective, to push on with military force and secure a situation where, if talks do begin they already look like the de facto governing body in Afghanistan.  If the military tool gets blunted, then there is an alternative solution.  A process of dividing up government ministries and provinces within a small group of male, white-bearded power-brokers currently to be found within insurgent, government and local power-brokers.  There are many ethnic, political, religious and military figures outside of the Taliban who might be convinced to divide up the pie in this way as long as they are clear beneficiaries and there is little accountability from the population.  This might end up with large parts of the country officially or unofficially under Taliban control.

Key drivers to watch for in the coming months:

  • Fragmentation of the Afghan military – surrenders, desertions, defections, casualties.  No sign of this as a significant problem at present and it would probably need tens of thousands of ANA soldiers to desert/defect for it to be considered an issue.   
  • Control of Kabul and provincial capitals – serious problems if these fall to the Taliban.
  • The role of warlords – Afghan regional players (think Dostum, Ismail Khan, Hekmatyar, etc) raising their own private armies and later perhaps striking private deals with the Taliban.
  • Waning or lukewarm support from the US and the international community.
  • The role of Pakistan, specifically its levels of covert and overt support for the Taliban.
  • Increased flows of refugees into neighbouring countries – particularly Pakistan and Iran – and later into Europe.
  • Increase in human rights abuses – targeting individuals, ethnic, social and gender groups.  

The next six to twelve months will be crucial.  But violence and instability is likely to continue to impact Afghanistan for at least the next 5 to 10 years.  This is a grim read from The Economist:

“The zealots of the Taliban, who harboured Osama bin Laden and were overthrown by American-backed forces after 9/11, have made a horrifying comeback.  They are in complete control of about half the country and threaten to conquer the rest.  The democratic, pro-Western government fostered by so much American blood and money is corrupt, widely reviled and in steady retreat…In the best-case scenario, strong American support for the government…might succeed in producing some form of power-sharing agreement.  But even if that were to happen—and the chances are low—it would be a depressing spectacle. The Taliban would insist on moving backwards in the direction of the brutal theocracy they imposed during their previous stint in power, when they confined women to their homes, stopped girls from going to school and meted out harsh punishments for sins such as wearing the wrong clothes or listening to the wrong music.

More likely than any deal, however, is that the Taliban try to use their victories on the battlefield to topple the government by force… At the very least, the civil war is likely to intensify, as the Taliban press their advantage and the government fights for its life. Other countries—China, India, Iran, Russia and Pakistan—will seek to fill the vacuum left by America…America is abandoning an entire country of almost 40m people to a grisly fate.”[27]

Perhaps there is a small slice of optimism.  At the moment, the loose power vacuum is extremely alarming.  There are several reports of Afghan army units surrendering, disintegrating, collapsing or even fleeing into another country.  The Afghan military is scrambling to keep up.  Rapid collapses and fluid power vacuums have happened before: the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992 in the face of the mujahideen and the withdrawal of Soviet support, the mujahideen collapsed in the mid-1990s in the face of the Taliban, the Taliban collapsed in late 2001 in the face of American air power.  In these situations many armed fighters realigned themselves, flocking to join what they perceived as the “winning side”.   It is difficult to understand clearly what is happening on the ground across the country – claims and counter-claims muddy the analytical waters – but some realignment of loyalties should be an expected part of the process in the face of a major strategic shift in the balance of power. 

If the Afghan military forces hold together and provide some military rebuffs to the Taliban – perhaps quickly recapturing some key districts – the Taliban military fire can be dampened for a period.  As confident Taliban forces surge across the country, they are suffering significant casualties as well – many are being treated in Pakistani hospitals.[28]  One of the problems the “victorious” mujahideen experienced as the Soviets withdrew in the 1988-90 period, was over-confidence, leading to many poorly-judged attacks against well dug in and well-equipped and supported conscripts.  This led to high levels of casualties.  There are no conscripts in the ANA and significant parts of the Afghan military are now quite good – certainly well-experienced and battle tested.

A stabilising of the military situation by the time winter comes is a plausible outcome.  Rebuffs and bad weather would take the edge off Taliban offensive operations.  This could allow a period for the international community to redirect the Taliban and the government back into talks.  So what we are seeing now is probably a downward lurch that can be arrested.  It does not yet look like a collapse into fragmentation.


[1] Miller, L., ‘The Myth of a Responsible Withdrawal From Afghanistan’, Foreign Policy, 22 Jan. 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2021-01-22/myth-responsible-withdrawal-afghanistan

[2] ‘Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal, New Intelligence Assessment Says’, Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-government-could-collapse-six-months-after-u-s-withdrawal-new-intelligence-assessment-says-11624466743

[3] Nossiter, A., ‘The Taliban Think They Have Already Won, Peace Deal or Not’, The New York Times, 30 Mar. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/world/asia/taliban-victory-afghanistan.html  and ‘Afghanistan violence jumps 50 percent amid peace talks: Watchdog’, Al Jazeera, 5 Nov. 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/5/afghanistan-violence-jumps-50-percent-amid-peace-talks-watchdog

[4] ‘Afghan-Taliban peace talks an “opportunity for peace”’, BBC News, 12 Sep. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53976968

[5] Constable, P., ‘Taliban shows it can launch attacks anywhere across Afghanistan, even as peace talks continue’, The Washington Post, 25 Oct. 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/afghanistan-violence-peace-talks-taliban/2020/10/25/4161716e-156c-11eb-a258-614acf2b906d_story.html

[6] Khattak, D., ‘The Pitfalls in Afghanistan’s Peace Process’, The Diplomat, 24 Jan. 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/the-pitfalls-in-afghanistans-peace-process/

[7] Herman, S., ‘US Troops to be Out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11’, VoA, 14 Apr. 2021, https://www.voanews.com/usa/us-troops-be-out-afghanistan-sept-11  and Gibbins-Neff, T., Schmitt, E., and Cooper, H., ‘Pentagon Accelerates Withdrawal From Afghanistan’, The New York Times, 25 May 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/25/us/politics/us-afghanistan-withdrawal.html

[8] Greve, J., ‘Joe Biden says US to pull its forces out of Afghanistan by 31 August’, The Guardian, 8 July 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jul/08/joe-biden-afghanistan-military-pullout-ahead-of-schedule

[9] Bezhan, F., ‘Kabul Chaos: Afghan Election Dispute Could Spill Over Into Peace Process’, RFE/RL, 26 Feb. 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/afghan-election-dispute-ghani-abdullah-peace-process/30456566.html

[10] Dobbins, J., et al, ‘US-Taliban Negotiations: How to Avoid Rushing to Failure’, The Atlantic Council, 3 Sep. 2019,  https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/us-taliban-negotiations-how-to-avoid-rushing-to-failure

[11] ‘Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict First Quarter Update: 1 January to 31 March 2021’, UNAMA, 14 Apr. 2021, https://reliefweb.int/report/afghanistan/afghanistan-protection-civilians-armed-conflict-first-quarter-update-1-january-31

[12] Gannon, K., ‘US left Afghan airfield at night, didn’t tell new commander’, AP News, 6 July 2021, https://apnews.com/article/bagram-afghanistan-airfield-us-troops-f3614828364f567593251aaaa167e623

[13] ‘Militant groups could pose threat to US in two years from Afghanistan: Pentagon’, Ariana News, 18 June 2021, https://ariananews.af/militant-groups-could-pose-threat-to-u-s-in-two-years-from-afghanistan-pentagon-leaders/#.YMwhsJkMrTM.twitter

[14] ‘Afghan Government Could Collapse Six Months After U.S. Withdrawal, New Intelligence Assessment Says’, Wall Street Journal, 23 June 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghan-government-could-collapse-six-months-after-u-s-withdrawal-new-intelligence-assessment-says-11624466743

[15] Roggio, B., ‘Taliban control in Afghanistan expands significantly since 2018’, Long War Journal, 14 May 2021, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/05/taliban-control-in-afghanistan-expands-significantly-since-2018.php

[16] Roggio, B., ‘Afghanistan at risk of collapse as Taliban storms the north’, Long War Journal, 5 July 2021, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2021/07/afghanistan-at-risk-of-collapse-as-taliban-storms-the-north.php

[17] Gul, A., ‘Taliban Capture at Least a Dozen Districts as Afghan Fighting Rages’, VoA, 3 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/taliban-capture-least-dozen-districts-afghan-fighting-rages

[18] ‘Taliban say they control 85% of Afghanistan, humanitarian concerns mount’, Reuters, 10 July 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/militia-commanders-rush-aid-afghan-forces-against-taliban-2021-07-09/

[19] ‘The Taliban’s increasing hold over Afghanistan’, AFP News Agency, 8 July 2021, https://twitter.com/AFP/status/1412970979320426501

[20] ‘Afghanistan: Taliban Forcibly Displace Civilians’, Human Rights Watch, 7 July 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/07/afghanistan-taliban-forcibly-displace-civilians

[21] ‘”My Future Is Now.”  An Afghan Woman from a Threatened Minority Wrestles with What Happens When the U.S. Withdraws’, Time, 28 June 2021, https://time.com/6075566/hazara-shia-afghanistan/

[22] Niazman, G., ‘Taliban Impose New Restrictions on Women, Media In Afghanistan’s North’, VoA, 9 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/taliban-impose-new-restrictions-women-media-afghanistans-north

[23] Niazman, G., ‘Taliban Impose New Restrictions on Women, Media In Afghanistan’s North’, VoA, 9 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/taliban-impose-new-restrictions-women-media-afghanistans-north

[24] Castronuovo, C., ‘Taliban targeting Afghan pilots for assassination as US withdraws: report’, The Hill, 9 July 2021, https://thehill.com/policy/international/middle-east-north-africa/562316-taliban-targeting-afghan-pilots-for

[25] Haltiwanger, J., ‘Viral video of Taliban executing 22 Afghan commandos as they surrendered ignites more criticism of Biden’s withdrawal’, Business Insider, 13 July 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/video-shows-taliban-executing-22-afghan-commandos-cnn-2021-7?r=US&IR=T

[26] ‘Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, SIGAR, 30 July 2020, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2020-07-30qr.pdf

[27] ‘America’s war in Afghanistan is ending in crushing defeat’, The Economist, 10 July 2021, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2021/07/10/americas-longest-war-is-ending-in-crushing-defeat

[28] Noorzai, R., ‘Taliban Active in Pakistan as Dead and Wounded Militants Arrive from Afghanistan’, VoA, 13 July 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/taliban-active-pakistan-dead-and-wounded-militants-arrive-afghanistan

Taliban reportedly making rapid advances

July 8, 2021

It makes worrying reading. This report is based on analysis by the Long War Journal. Both the Taliban and the Afghan government are prone, both deliberately and unintentionally, to making inaccurate statements about “who controls what”. So this remains a fast-moving and volatile situation, with districts falling in and out of Taliban control from day to day. Maybe in the weeks and months to come the situation will become clearer. This filling of the vacuum does not necessarily herald a total collapse, but prospects are bleak at the moment.

NYT: Uptick in surrender rates of Afghan forces?

May 27, 2021

Summary: The flow of defections and desertions between government and Taliban forces is probably a good indicator of the direction the conflict is headed.  The New York Times report that the negotiated surrender rate of Afghan government forces to the insurgents is speeding up.

The RAND National Defense Research Institute produced an interesting study in 2010 that looked at how insurgencies end.  The paper, by Ben Connable and Martin Libicki, studied 89 insurgencies of varying duration, intensity and character.  They rightly and carefully caveated their findings, cautioning against taking generalised historical findings as a prescription for dealing with current insurgencies.  In 2010, they clearly meant Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have always found the report a useful place to kick-start my thinking.  For this blogpost, I am purely focused on Afghanistan. 

I will crudely sketch in their key findings for context, highlighting in bold the issue I am thinking about today and putting my general comments in square brackets.  I think I need to look through all these findings again and revisit the report in slower time:

Key findings:

  • Modern insurgencies last approximately 10 years and the government’s chances of winning increase slightly over time
  • Withdrawal of state sponsorship [i.e. Pakistan] cripples an insurgency and can lead to its defeat 
  • Inconsistent or impartial support to either side generally presages defeat [i.e. what international support will the Afghan government be able to rely on post-2021?]
  • Anocracies (pseudo democracies) [the flawed Afghan government?] do not often succeed against insurgencies

Key indicators of the progress of the insurgency:

  • The rate of desertions, defections and infiltrations can often indicate significant trends in the course of the conflict
  • The willingness/unwillingness of the civilian population to report on insurgent activity reflects govt COIN success or failure

Additional findings:

  • Complex insurgencies, with more than two protagonists, lead to messier and more protracted endings [what happens when warlords and other factions get involved?]
  • Over the long run, it is more common for governments to outlast insurgents – going against conventional wisdom [i.e. the Taliban’s “they have all the watches but we have all the time”]
  • Insurgencies perform better with a command hierarchy and rural terrain
  • Terrorism often backfires – indiscriminate terror is often a sign of over-confidence or weakness
  • Weak insurgents can win
  • Sanctuary is vital to insurgencies [i.e. Pakistan]

The study offers up the idea of rates of defections and desertions as a potentially useful indicator for the direction in which the conflict was tipping.  The New York Times has a concerning article out today highlighting the increasing pace of surrenders by government forces to the Taliban.  Laghman province is the main subject of the report:

“Ammunition was depleted inside the bedraggled outposts in Laghman Province. Food was scarce. Some police officers hadn’t been paid in five months.

Then, just as American troops began leaving the country in early May, Taliban fighters besieged seven rural Afghan military outposts across the wheat fields and onion patches of the province, in eastern Afghanistan.

The insurgents enlisted village elders to visit the outposts bearing a message: Surrender or die.

By mid-month, security forces had surrendered all seven outposts after extended negotiations, according to village elders. At least 120 soldiers and police were given safe passage to the government-held provincial center in return for handing over weapons and equipment… Since May 1, at least 26 outposts and bases in just four provinces — Laghman, Baghlan, Wardak and Ghazni — have surrendered after such negotiations, according to village elders and government officials. With morale diving as American troops leave, and the Taliban seizing on each surrender as a propaganda victory, each collapse feeds the next in the Afghan countryside.

Among the negotiated surrenders were four district centers, which house local governors, police and intelligence chiefs — effectively handing the government facilities to Taliban control and scattering the officials there, at least temporarily.  The Taliban have negotiated Afghan troop surrenders in the past, but never at the scale and pace of the base collapses this month in the four provinces extending east, north and west of Kabul. The tactic has removed hundreds of government forces from the battlefield, secured strategic territory and reaped weapons, ammunition and vehicles for the Taliban — often without firing a shot.

The base collapses are one measure of the rapidly deteriorating government war effort as one outpost after another falls, sometimes after battles, but often after wholesale surrenders.

The surrenders are part of a broader Taliban playbook of seizing and holding territory as security force morale plummets with the exit of international troops… The surrenders are the work of Taliban Invitation and Guidance Committees, which intervene after insurgents cut off roads and supplies to surrounded outposts. Committee leaders or Taliban military leaders phone base commanders — and sometimes their families — and offer to spare troops’ lives if they surrender their outposts, weapons and ammunition.

In several cases, the committees have given surrendering troops money — typically around $130 — and civilian clothes and sent them home unharmed. But first they videotape the men as they promise not to rejoin the security forces. They log their phone numbers and the names of family members — and vow to kill the men if they rejoin the military.

“The Taliban commander and the Invitation and Guidance Committee called me more than 10 times and asked me to surrender,” said Maj. Imam Shah Zafari, 34, a district police chief in Wardak Province who surrendered his command center and weapons on May 11 after negotiations mediated by local elders.

After the Taliban provided a car ride home to Kabul, he said, a committee member phoned to assure him that the government would not imprison him for surrendering. “He said, ‘We have so much power in the government and we can release you,’” Major Zafari said.

The Taliban committees take advantage of a defining characteristic of Afghan wars: Fighters and commanders regularly switch sides, cut deals, negotiate surrenders and cultivate village elders for influence with local residents.”

There doesn’t appear to be any significant government punishment for desertion.  Desertion has been a major problem in the ANA – I might even call it commonplace.[1]  In the early years of the ANA’s creation, soldiers would spontaneously return to their homes and villages to help with the harvest or to physically hand over their wages in the absence of electronic banking systems, or during the winter (traditionally the end of the “fighting season”) or for Ramadan.  Others have deserted out of frustration – lack of wages, food, uniforms, time off, poor equipment or corruption in the senior levels of command.  More recently, high levels of casualties in the war against the Taliban are a more worrying reason for desertion to increase.  SIGAR report the ANA as currently at only 75% of its official strength.[2] Most of the efforts to curb desertion in the ANA revolve around improving the conditions of the soldiers – wages, living conditions, food and contact with home.  I do not know the precise punishments for deserting from the Afghan National Army – or even if there is a set of formal penalties.  One report in 2015 from the US military journal, Stars and Stripes, suggested that there was no official penalty (my highlight in bold): 

“Matiullah Laghmani was done with the army.  One day in 2013 he asked the army trainers at his base for a day of urgent home leave, then never returned.  The Afghan security forces are losing some 4,000 members per month, American officials say, an attrition considered among the highest in recent military history.  While battlefield casualties, which have increased over last year, account for some of the losses, the vast majority are soldiers and policemen who, like Laghmani, simply go absent without leave, Gen. John Campbell, commander of the NATO-led coalition, said recently.  Like many other recruits, Laghmani, 25, had turned to the army as his only chance for employment. But only a few months later, his family began receiving threats from the Taliban.

‘The army was the only option for me, but very soon I realized that my family will suffer if I stayed there,’ he said.

There is no legal penalty for soldiers and police who decide to quit before their term of enlistment is complete.”[3] The Afghan government and military are not well resourced to prosecute desertion and do not appear to treat it as a serious crime – it is too commonplace: high casualties, low morale, poor treatment and low pay are some of the reasons for high levels of desertion. 

What is being described here does not entirely fit the Connable and Libicki definitions of either desertion or defection.  But it certainly seems to have an effect in areas where the local security forces are under-resourced, unsupported and with low morale. It seems to be a well-structured process of negotiation and agreement – including documenting and photographing – by which the Afghan security forces agree to take themselves off the battlefield.  However, it is also fair to note that when an Afghan fighter defects, deserts or withdraws from the battlefield, he may not stay in that situation indefinitely: a perceived change in military or financial fortunes could see fighters returning to the fray on the same side or a different side.

 Need to keep an eye on this.


[1] Amani, S., and MacAskill, A., ‘Desertions deplete Afghan forces, adding to security worries’, Reuters, 18 Jan. 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-army-desertions/desertions-deplete-afghan-forces-adding-to-security-worries-idUSKCN0UW1K3

[2] ‘Quarterly Report to the United States Congress’, SIGAR, 30 July 2019, https://www.sigar.mil/, p.64.

[3] Smith, J., ‘Tide of desertions – among highest in recent history – strains Afghan forces’, Stars and Stripes, 3 Sep. 2015, https://www.stripes.com/news/middle-east/tide-of-desertions-among-highest-in-recent-history-strains-afghan-forces-1.366071

UK Govt advises British Nationals to consider leaving Afghanistan

April 25, 2021

Just noticed this change of the UK government travel advice: nowhere in Afghanistan is considered safe and UK citizens should consider leaving…

“The FCDO advises British nationals in Afghanistan to consider leaving by commercial means, in view of the likely heightened security risks. This change in the level of advice follows public statements by the Taliban which may increase the possibility of attacks after 1 May. The security situation will remain uncertain, with the possibility of heightened threats.

Thomas Barfield – CFA talk, 22 March 2021

March 29, 2021

It is always interesting to hear the thoughts of Thomas Barfield, one of the leading Western experts on Afghanistan and author of “Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History”.  He spoke via Zoom conference organised by the UK Conservative Friends of Afghanistan group on 22 March.  These are my notes of his talk, slightly reordered into themes.

History

There have been many different regime types in Afghanistan: in the last 40 years there has been a cycle of falling governments and rising insurgencies.

Foreigners enter Afghanistan for their own reasons and Afghanistan has never successfully been colonised.  The British Raj had no interest in Afghanistan per se, but for its own defence of the British Empire, for use as a buffer state with no need to colonise it

In Afghan history the greatest period of violence was during the time of the Amir Abdur Rahman, during the late 1880s to 1890s.  During King Amanullah’s time in 1929 there was a brief period of civil war but no long term insurgency – in a fifty year period from then there were no insurgencies in Afghanistan, largely because the government was careful not to overreach

Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Having an international sponsor makes it hard for the rebels to topple the government

In 1992 there were two choices as the Najibullah regime was collapsing – Massoud, who was actually in country and fighting or the group of 7 party leaders from Pakistan.  The wrong decision was made – a group of 7 leaders came from Pakistan and seized power.

The 2001 US intervention

The US was trying to rebuild Afghanistan in its own image, with the help of some particular groups in Afghanistan.  If the international community goes, does the money go as well?  The Afghan regime cannot survive the loss of international aid

The US did not go into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban – Al Qaeda were the terrorists, the Taliban were not.  The US could have reconciled with the Taliban but the US has a “with us or against us” mentality.  The US did go into Afghanistan to build, but, over time, Afghanistan became a different project.

In 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over.  In 2002-03 it was very safe to travel.  An opportunity was lost – it was not inevitable that an insurgency would be created, governments and external sponsors made it happen

Iraq lost its sovereignty when the US invaded, Afghanistan did not (the Northern Alliance liberated Kabul).  At the Bonn conference the US did not claim to be the rulers of Afghanistan – Afghanistan could have told the Americans to get lost.

Political situation

The new Afghan constitution is the 1964 revamped, with the word “King” removed and “President” inserted.  It is fit for a tyrant or a monarch.  The president can appoint any provincial governor – the local people have no say.  In the 20th century, all Afghanistan’s leaders have either been overthrown or assassinated.  But, unlike the Balkans, no ethnic leader has threatened to seek independence – Afghanistan is not likely to break up.

Afghanistan has never had a census – the Pushtuns claim a majority, but who knows?  All ethnic groups claim they are twice their actual size and so everyone claims they are being “cheated” if they lose government positions in aid of balance and equality.  In the absence of facts from a census, every group makes claims.  But each ethnic group has a majority in one area.  Barfield favours the idea of an Afghan federation, with 4 or 5 regions rather than running at the provincial level – you should not run everything from Kabul

Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.

Afghanistan allows the recognition of political parties but follows leaders or ethnic groups.  How can parliament be reorganised?  In 2001, liberal “statebuilding” has created a highly centralised government (the Amir Abdur Rahman would have been proud!).  Ought to separate the “administration” – courts, police, bureaucracy – from policy.  Afghanistan’s leaders are never chosen by a Loya Jirga

Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

The Taliban

It is not clear who the Taliban are now.  Some want the Islamic Emirate back.  Today the Taliban have a robust media structure and are more nationalist.  The violence is overwhelmingly Afghan killing Afghan – is this still a legitimate jihad?  The Taliban are also present in the north and the west.  Is the Taliban a unitary force – who are we negotiating with?  Who do the Taliban representatives in Doha actually represent?  This is a proxy war with the Taliban as a proxy of Pakistan.  While Afghans have the capacity to reconcile amongst themselves, the US is negotiating with a Pakistan proxy insurgency

The Taliban’s problem now is that they have been out of Afghanistan for many years – the Afghanistan they remember from 2001 has long gone.  The population is very young, communications networks and education are very extensive now, there are few Taliban who are prone to compromise or who even understand the current problems in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban alienate the international community, they will be back in the same desperate situation as they were in 2001

Pakistan’s role in supporting the Taliban

Pakistan’s role – 30 years of support for the Taliban (and ISI support to the Mujahideen, with the US and Saudi)

Post-2001, the US did not recognise that Pakistan was actually a belligerent.  Pakistan was a nuclear power with a population of 180 million and a long tradition as a US ally.  In dealing with Afghanistan, particularly in the 80s, the US tended to ask/defer to Pakistan.  Afghanistan as “Pakistan’s 5th province”.  In the 1990s, Kandahar even had a Pakistan area code

Prospects for talks and the future

It was a mistake at Bonn not to incorporate the Taliban

The issue of dealing with the Taliban needs to be internationalised: China and others need to be involved – the neighbours, Iran, Russia… There are many good reasons for the neighbours to seek stability in Afghanistan, even they do not like the US

Federalism – there is a need to devolve power – don’t focus on the provinces, focus on the regions: policies that may work in Kandahar may not work in Mazar… If the Taliban are popular in the south then let them run for election.  The problem at the moment is that everything is zero sum.  Are the Taliban now more willing to accept foreign aid (in the 1990s it was the UN that fed Kabul, not the Taliban).  But while the Taliban may now recognise that they need international aid, will American Congressmen sign off millions of dollars once the Taliban start closing down girl’s schools?  The Taliban’s best ally is Pakistan and Pakistan is broke (i.e. if you are going to pick patrons, pick one that isn’t broke…)

Prospects for the Turkish Summit – it won’t work.  This is not a Bonn 2001 situation, wrapping up a war.  It needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: UDS, China, Russia…  It needs the UN and also the EU (there are more EU troops in Afghanistan than American).  Europe is much better at getting disputing factions somewhere where the ground is neutral (ie maybe Norway instead of Doha or Moscow…?).  And the UK also.  Mediation should not be done by the US and Khalilzad, it needs someone from the UN to broker a deal – need to stop outside interference, the US is too bilateral. 

Tim comments:

A couple of points that occur to me from this very useful talk:

The role of hindsight: I increasingly find myself wondering about the role hindsight is playing when I hear expressions like: “it was a mistake not to bring the Taliban in at the Bonn Conference”, “the US could have reconciled with the Taliban” and “in 2001 the US could have created a stable Afghanistan but did not recognise that the war was over…An opportunity was lost”.  It seems to me to be equally plausible that if the Taliban had been brought to the table and been given government roles at Bonn in a power-sharing arrangement with the Northern Alliance and the international military presence never established itself in Afghanistan in 2002 (with the US rushing into Iraq), the civil war could have resumed again 12 months later.  That period of time – 2001-2003 was still all about warlords, foreign influence and authoritarian grabs for power in an unstable and swirling environment. Would Pakistan have learnt any lesson about not interfering in Afghanistan if there was no ISAF?

Role of Pakistan: It was noticeable that Barfield points the finger very clearly at the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan – Pakistan using the Taliban to fight a proxy war in Afghanistan. 

The prospects for the future: Mr Barfield makes some important comments about what is needed to “solve” Afghanistan. 

  • Afghanistan is rich in resources, but foreign interference needs to cease.
  • The peace process needs to be much more multi-lateral.  It needs an accord amongst rival states: US, China, Russia… 
  • Pakistan needs to stop using the Taliban as a proxy for its own agenda in Afghanistan
  • Federalism – there is a need to devolve power from Kabul
  • Afghanistan is not a liberal state, it is an autocratic one.  There are no institutions that can intervene to protect – Kabul politics is national politics.  A change to the ways in which power is distributed is necessary.

These points are hard to disagree with.  But, in terms of successful implementation, achieving these goals seem either very unlikely, exceptionally difficult (a lot of working parts need to be working in the right directions) or still at some point 30, 40 or fifty years into the future. 

UN Security Council report – more bleak reading…

March 26, 2021

UN Security Council Report A/75/811-S/2021/252, dated 12 Mar. 2021

The United Nations Security Council published its regular update on the security situation in Afghanistan: The Situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security.  It addresses UN activities in Afghanistan, including political, humanitarian, development and human rights issues.

As ever, there some pretty stark pieces of information within the document.  Security incidents in 2020 were at an all-time high, including increased amount of targeted killings.  Humanitarian needs were also at a record high due to security situation, natural disasters and food insecurity.

Security situation

The year 2020 saw a record number of incidents – 25,180.  This is a ten per cent increase from 2019 (22,832).  This is the highest level since UN began recording in 2007.  The number of air strikes have declined by 44% but armed clashes rose by 18%.  IED detonations rose by 32% and assassinations by 27%.

The period from November 2020 to February 2021 saw a 47% increase in security-related incidents compared to the same period a year earlier.  Anti-Government Elements (AGEs – meaning primarily the Taliban but also other groups, including Islamic State, Al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and other smaller groups) caused 86% of all incidents.  Most of the incidents in the south, followed by the east and north – Helmand and Kandahar in the south, Nangarhar in the east and Balkh in the north together account for 69% of all incidents.

In Kabul city there were 35 suicide attacks between Nov 2020 and Feb 2021 (42 at the same period a year earlier).

There have been no significant territorial advances gains by any side.  The Taliban maintains pressure on the transport routes and urban centres – particularly vulnerable provincial capitals Kunduz, Farah, Helmand and Kandahar. 

Contrary to positive statements about the demise of Islamic State from the US and Afghan governments last year, Islamic State’s presence increased: 25 attacks were recorded, compared to 11 at same time last period (9 Dec 2020).  The main areas of operation were in eastern Afghanistan, in Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman.  Islamic State conducted two rocket attacks against Kabul city.

Human Rights

There were 8,820 civilian casualties in 2020.  This represents a 13% decrease from 2019, primarily because there were fewer casualties from suicide bomb attacks and airstrikes.  But there has bene an increase casualties from targeted killings, IEDs and airstrikes in last quarter of 2020.  The last quarter of 2020 saw a 45% increase in civilian casualties compared to last quarter of 2019.

There continue to be serious casualties inflicted against children – last quarter of 2020 saw 837 “grave violations”.  In addition, the UN verified the recruitment and use of 33 boys, 25 by the Taliban and 8 by pro-government militia, as well as the abduction of 12 children by the Taliban and 1 by government militia.

There were 17 attacks on schools (a decrease from 25 in 3rd quarter of 2020), but atacks on hospitals tripled.  There were 39 verified attacks – against 13 in 3rd quarter

86 cases of violence against women were recorded from Nov 2020 to Jan 2021

Torture and ill-treatment

A 3 Feb 6th UNAMA report based on 656 interviews with those suspected of security and terrorism-related offences concluded that torture allegations are prevalent and that there was a “widespread disregard for the procedural rights of detainees”.

There were increasing security threats against human rights activists and journalists by targeted killings.

Humanitarian assistance

Humanitarian needs continue to rise because of the three main factors: the violence levels, natural disasters and growing food insecurity.  All of these problems are exacerbated by the COVID pandemic.  Approximately 18.4 million people need humanitarian assistance in 2021 (this is an increase from 9.4 million in beginning of 2020). 

COVID pandemic – 55,000 are confirmed to have contracted, but the number is likely to be much higher.  Patients are not receiving basic health services, the system overwhelmed and many stay away from health facilities through fear of contracting the virus.  Polio cases increasing – 56 in 2020, 29 in 2019 – polio has now spread to 14 provinces, indicating a declining immunity in the population.

There are significant levels of food insecurity.  In March 2021 16.9 million – a little under half of the population of Afghanistan – are assessed to be at “crisis” or “emergency” levels – 5.5 million of whom are at emergency levels of food insecurity.  This is the second highest number in the world.  Half of the children under five years old will face malnutrition in 2021.  The already poor food situation could worsen – there is likelihood of low rainfall and high temperatures from La Nina weather conditons.

In 2020 the highest annual number of undocumented returnees arrived back in Afghanistan.  Of 870,000 in total, 860,000 came back from due to COVID, related restrictions, limited access to health care and deteriorating economic circumstances.  In 2020, 400,000 Afghans were displaced by the conflict inside the country.  The UN notes that the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan was only 49% funded by the end of 2020, leaving a shortfall of $573 million.

UN observations

This is all pretty bleak reading.  The document records a lot of the politics – Doha, talks with the Taliban, international discussions, government reorganisations without any significant comment.  The Taliban’s failure to include any women in their negotiating team is commented upon:

“…a Taliban spokesperson justified the absence of women from the Taliban negotiating team by arguing that women did not fight in the war.”

Some selected quotes from the UN Secretary General at the end of this paper. 

“outraged” by targeted killings,

“worsening security situation is of deep concern”,

“civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict”,

“the peace process has not yet improved conditions for Afghan civilians”

“UNAMA documenting an increase in civilian casualties since the start of the Afghanistan peace negotiations”

“deeply disturbed by the allegations of torture and ill-treatment Afghan detention facilities”

Long way to go.

Rise of militias and warlords: northern Afghanistan

February 4, 2021

An interesting and concerning article from the New York Times today highlighting a lot of what is wrong with the security situation inside Afghanistan.  With a dominant and aggressive Taliban presence, local security forces are eroding away and being replaced with lower grade personnel with little or no direct connection to the Afghan governance. Recruits are often tricked to join, with promises of construction work.  Minimal training, minimal – if any – pay and no support if they are injured.  Local warlords – often also possessing military or political titles as well – organise these unofficial groups, often pocketing the difference in salaries between the “official” total of forces they declare as under their command and the “real” total of troops – normally fewer in number and less well paid.

NYT, 4 February 2021: A network of shadowy power brokers and warlords, bankrolled by the Afghan government and the national police force, is luring disadvantaged people into joining militias, sometimes under false pretenses, out of a growing desperation to hold territory around highways in the country’s north, according to former militia members and local officials.

These key arteries, which are the few means of road travel between the provinces, have increasingly become the front line for an emboldened Taliban insurgency. To protect them, local officials in Balkh Province are manning highway outposts with often untrained Afghans, who are given little more than a rifle and the promise of a paycheck if they survive. Others have been offered construction jobs, only to arrive and realize there is no repair work to be done.

The militia members are dropped in areas too dangerous to flee and only picked up weeks or months later, dead or alive.

The crooked recruitment practice is the latest indication that Afghanistan’s security forces have been hollowed out by degrading morale and poor recruitment as Taliban attacks continue at an unrelenting pace across the country.

It also signals a resurgence of warlordism, a distinct echo of a past civil war when the country was fractured into territories ruled over by strongmen and a disturbing warning of where the country’s future may lead as peace negotiations in Qatar stall and a possible complete American withdrawal is just months away…

…In July 2020, Sayid Jawad, a resident of Balkh, thought he had been hired to rebuild a government outpost destroyed by Taliban attacks for $150 a month, the kind of money he hadn’t earned in a long time.

At the base roughly 15 miles from his home in Mazar-i-Sharif, Mr. Jawad, 27, soon realized there was nothing in need of repair. A day later, he was handed a Kalashnikov and received a simple order over the radio from the district governor: Fight or die.

Afghanistan: Prospects for 2021

January 14, 2021

Summary: Progress with talks will be limited, the fighting will continue.

I have encountered – and, hands up, often used – more or less every analytical cliché in relation to Afghanistan over two decades of study.  Progress has been made but challenges remain.  Afghanistan is not Switzerland.  This is likely to be a critical yearThe Taliban is not a monolith.  There is a real risk of civil war.  The country is at a tipping point.  Actually, to be fair, I don’t think I have ever used the “tipping point” expression: it was well worn-out, even fifteen years ago.  Oops, apparently I have done.  I dimly recall The Economist writing some years back something along the lines of how the metaphors we choose can distort how we frame a problem, impairing analysis and solutions.  I suspect the same applies to cliche.  I am aware of the analytical risks and agonize every time I mention civil war. 

But it is necessary to return to the big box of clichés at least once a year.  It is difficult to be optimistic about the coming year.  The Taliban remain militarily strong and confidently await the total withdrawal of US armed forces from the country, currently scheduled for 1 May 2021.  As such, they are likely to draw out the Doha talks – there is little beyond discussion over protocols and format at present – until this happens.  They have not suffered any political or military consequences from their positioning.  The Afghan government is struggling to assert itself on the battlefield and, politically, remains fragmented, corrupt and dependent upon the funding and support of the international community. 

America has been an unreliable and unpredictable partner of the Afghan government since Donald Trump became president.  The US is now greatly distracted by its own domestic turmoil, created as Trump leaves office, kicking and screaming.  Some measure of post-Trump coherence in US policy towards Afghanistan is likely to return in 2021.  But the US military disengagement from Afghanistan is still likely under a Biden administration. Joe Biden has in the past been known to favour retaining a small US Counter Terrorist capability in Afghanistan.  However, to the Taliban this would constitute a breach of the February 2020 Doha agreement and would likely trigger an increase in violence.  The options facing the Biden administration seem to fall into two main categories: “plans-based” – stick to the withdrawal agreement and pull out by May, or “conditions-based” – retain/enhance a US military force in-country as leverage until the Taliban come good and reduce the levels of violence.  Barnett Rubin seems to favour a bit of both: a six month extension to compensate for the wasted six months before the Taliban and the Afghan government finally began talking last September, before the US then finally pulls out.  There is a very helpful tweet linked here from Asfandyar Mir, summarising the range of opinions, options and debate on the US way ahead in Afghanistan.

Have the Taliban changed?

“The Taliban have not changed,” said Abdul Hafiz Mansour, a member of the government negotiating team. “They are eager for power, but they have no plans or policies, no ability to run a country. They are a fighting army, not a governing group. They know how to destroy but not to build.”

I still think this is about right.  The Taliban remain deliberately hazy about how they would approach government and how/if they envisage working as a political entity inside Afghanistan.  How might their district by district “war economy” approach to rule work on the national and international stage?  Do they integrate?  Do they insist upon large shares in government, perhaps particular ministries?  Does the Afghan government bankrupt itself further by reintegrating tens of thousands of Taliban fighters into the armed forces or paying pensions to Taliban commanders?  Should there be an  “interim government”?  What would an “interim government” even mean, bearing in mind there are many opportunistic powerbrokers (Hekmatyar for one) who would be more than happy to see an overturning of the current political order if it meant their own personal advancement, even if it meant improper and cynical trade-offs with the Taliban? 

The Taliban’s confidence and victories on the battlefield is inversely proportional to their willingness to compromise on matters of the constitution, governance, society, economy and human/women’s rights.  Across large areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban are increasing their efforts to dominate and interdict major routes.  Hundreds of IEDs are planted, some roads are being torn up and checkpoints are proliferating.  Commercial traffic on the roads are being taxed by armed Taliban gunmen.  The Taliban are reportedly able to spend much more time stopping, questioning and detaining travellers now they are no longer subject to intensive air strikes and US military intervention.  It is superficially positive that the Taliban are not conducting as many mass casualty terror incidents as before (this is left to Islamic State).  But a new tactic is that of deniable targeted assassination: journalists, military and political officials, civil activists and others are being killed.  In so doing, stability is further undermined and the Taliban are slowly removing people that might pose resistance to a Taliban regime in the future.  Civil society is being corroded.

2021 will see little progress in talks and such talks as there are will reveal how differently the Taliban and the Afghan government understand and envisage “integration”.  The battlefield – rural and urban – will remain a bloody backdrop.  This still feels like a very slow slide towards civil war.  I hope to be proved wrong.

Trump tweet: more confused than ever

October 8, 2020

Summary: President Donald Trump sends out a tweet saying that US forces should all come home by Xmas, as opposed to the understood strategy of withdrawing next year. Sigh.

Just flagging this confused, confusing and highly unhelpful tweet from Donald Trump:

In theory (this week at least), the US are planning to pull out their remaining forces next year. It presents the usual dilemmas with regard to this American President (and this one alone):

Is it policy or his medication?

Does he know what he is talking about?

Will he have tweeted something that overrules or contradicts this in the coming hours/days?

Did he consult anyone with Afghanistan knowledge amongst his advisors?

Does he know how much the Taliban will love this statement?

Does he care?

Trump’s interest in Afghanistan is simple: he will use the conflict in the country to help his election prospects. If it cannot contribute to that then he does not care about the country’s fate.

Kabul security situation

September 9, 2020

Summary: A bomb attack attempted to kill Amrullah Saleh, First Vice President of Afghanistan. While the attack failed in its goal, at least ten were killed and many injured.  Saleh survived a suicide bomb blast in July 2019.   Regular terror attacks continue to strike the capital, although gathering data on numbers of attacks and casualties is not easy and it is also difficult to attribute attacks to different groups amidst a routine flow of claims, counter-claims and denials from the main terrorist groups.  The nature of attacks looks to be shifting – there are fewer large-scale indiscriminate attacks and many smaller attacks, intended to target government and military individuals.  It is likely that some attacks are intended to influence or disrupt Taliban-Government peace talks.

On Wednesday 9 September 2020, an explosion struck the convoy of vehicles belonging to Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan government intelligence chief and now First Vice President.  The vehicles were moving inside Kabul city.  Details are still unclear, but it appears as if a dozen civilian bystanders and government officials have been killed and many more injured.  Saleh himself suffered minor injuries.  In July 2019, Saleh had also been attacked, by a suicide bomber, in his office in Kabul.Saleh: escaped with minor injuries

Regular terror attacks strike the capital, although gathering data on numbers of attacks and casualties is not easy and it is also difficult to attribute attacks to different groups amidst a routine flow of claims, counter-claims and denials from the main terrorist groups.

UNAMA noted in October 2019 that “Civilians living in the provinces of Kabul, Nangarhar, Helmand, Ghazni and Faryab were most directly impacted by the conflict (in that order)”.[1]  Kabul province continued to suffer from a high rate of civilian casualties in 2019:[2]

There are risks from indiscriminate violence in Kabul and the security situation remains poor.  The city was regularly hit by large-scale indiscriminate terrorist attacks throughout 2019 – as it was in 2018 and the years before that.

Kabul city is a favoured area of operation for the insurgents as it provides high profile media publicity and is a “target-rich” environment.[3]  Many attacks have struck the capital throughout the years, conducted primarily by three separate insurgent groups: the Taliban, Islamic State and the Haqqani Network (a smaller insurgent group loyal to the Taliban).  Each attack can cause dozens and even hundreds of dead and wounded. The city centre is generally the main location for attacks, including public areas, such as markets and mosques.[4]  In the last few months, the trend of attacks looks to be shifting: there are fewer larger scale indiscriminate attacks and more focused attacks against specific individuals.  This could well be the result of the Taliban and the Afghan government’s proximity to talks.

Here is a non-exhaustive summary of some of the main incidents from 2020 thus far.

On 11 February 2020, a suicide attack targeted a military academy in Kabul, killing at least five.[5]  On 6 March 2020, a terrorist attack targeted an open air ceremony attended by many government officials, including Afghanistan’s CEO, Dr Abdullah.  Twenty seven people were reported killed and fifty five injured.[6]  On 9 March, during the swearing-in ceremony of President Ashraf Ghani, several rockets landed in and around the area.[7]  On 25 March, suicide bombers and gunmen attack targeted a Sikh place of worship, killing around 25 after six hours of fighting.[8]  On 29 April, a suicide bomber attacked an Afghan Special Forces base in the southern part of the city, killing three civilians and wounding 15.[9]

Two explosions hit Kabul on 7 May, with no casualties.[10] Four explosions in and around the capital detonated within a space of 90 minutes on 11 May.  No casualties were reported.[11]  On 12 May a major attack on a hospital in Kabul took place.  Protracted fighting took place as government security forces attempt to deal with armed gunmen.  Much of the fighting took place in and around the maternity wing.  Women, nurses and babies died in the attack.  One hundred women and children were evacuated during the fighting.  The attackers were dressed in police uniforms.  The Taliban denied responsibility.  It is very plausible that Islamic State were behind the attack.[12]  Three magnetic bombs detonated on 18 May, injuring five.[13]  On 30 May, Islamic State claimed a bomb attack on a Kabul radio station that killed a journalist and a technician, and injured seven others.[14]  On 2 June a bomb inside a mosque in Kabul killed a senior religious figure.[15]  A further attack on another Kabul mosque on 12 June killed four and wounded eight, including the mosque’s prayer leader.[16]  On 27 June two staff of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission were killed in a car bomb attack.[17]  In a twenty-four hour period over 9 and 10 August, two explosions struck Kabul, killing or wounding at least nine people in total.[18]  On 18 August, multiple rockets landed inside Kabul, during a celebration of independence day.[19]  On 22 August, the New York Times reported:

 

“Three magnetic bombs went off within one hour on Saturday morning, and at least two more targeted attacks followed before the end of the day.”[20]

On 23 August, Afghan President Ghani sacked the Kabul police chief because of a failure to improve the security situation and the increase in attacks in and around the capital.[21]  There is a growing sense that the situation is getting worse in Kabul:

“Mornings in the city begin with ‘sticky bombs,’ explosives slapped onto vehicles that go up in flames. With night comes the dread of hit-and-run assassinations in the nearby suburbs — government employees shot dead by motorcycle-riding insurgents who roam free.

As peace talks to end Afghanistan’s long war face delays, the Taliban may be sparing Kabul, the capital, from mass-casualty attacks as part of an understanding with the United States. But the insurgents have instead shifted to a tactic that is eroding the Afghan government’s standing with each passing day: frequent targeted assaults that the country’s security forces seem unable to control.

The city has taken on an air of slow-creeping siege.

At least 17 small explosions and assassinations have been carried out in Kabul in the past week, according to a tally by The New York Times.”[22]

It remains difficult to attribute particular attacks, but it is likely that the bulk of these attacks are initiated by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network who have extensive intelligence and terror networks in the capital.  Larger, more indiscriminate attacks are plausibly being undertaken by Islamic State and other smaller spoiler groups.  The picture will remain unclear – there are network overlaps between the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Islamic State, permitting “deniability” as necessary.  Some of these attacks will be timed to coincide with developments in the peace talks, others will be working to undermine the talks or to longer-term or separate agendas.  Others still will be uncoordinated entirely.  The trend of smaller explosions is likely to continue – they allow the Taliban to put pressure on the Afghan government without bringing down excessive popular and international condemnation.   Larger incidents are more likely to be the work of Islamic State and smaller splinter groups looking to spoil talks and contribute to their preferred goal of greater instability across the country.

[1] ‘Quarterly Report on the Protection of civilians in armed conflict: 1 January to 30 September 2019’, UNAMA, 17 Oct.  2019, https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports, pp.1-2.

[2] ‘Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict’, UNAMA, Feb. 2020, p.iii, https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports

[3] ‘At Least 14 Killed, 145 Wounded In Taliban Car Bombing In Kabul’, RFE/RL, 7 Aug. 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-kabul-car-bomb-oolice-station-dozens-injured/30097013.html

[4] ‘Afghanistan: Dozens killed in bomb and gun attack on Shia mosque’, Al Jazeera, 3 Aug. 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/suicide-bombers-target-shia-mosque-eastern-afghanistan-180803104926634.html

[5] ‘Afghanistan: Suicide attack in Kabul kills several’, Al Jazeera, 11 Feb. 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/kabul-hit-suicide-attack-casualties-feared-reports-200211041316764.html

[6] ‘Kabul attack: Abdullah Abdullah escapes deadly attack’, BBC News, 6 Marc. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-51766602

[7] Mashal, M., Faizi, F., and Rahim, N., ‘Ghani Takes Oath of Afghan President.  His Rival Does, Too’,  The New York Times, 9 Mar. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/09/world/asia/afghanistan-president-inauguration-ghani-abdullah-.html

[8] Abed, F., ‘Gunmen Storm Sikh Complex in Kabul, Killing 25’, The New York Times, 25 Mar. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/world/asia/afghanistan-sikh-kabul.html

[9] ‘Afghan Officials: Suicide Bomber Kills 3 Civilians in Kabul’, The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/04/29/world/asia/ap-as-afghanistan.html?auth=login-email&login=email

[10] ‘Afghan Official says 2 explosions rock Kabul; no injuries’, Star Tribune, 7 May, 2020, https://www.startribune.com/afghan-official-says-2-explosions-rock-kabul-no-injuries/570279762/

[11] ‘Afghanistan: 4 explosions in Tahia Maskan area in Kabul’, India TV News, 11 May 2020, https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/world/afghanistan-explosions-tahia-maskan-area-kabul-616165

[12] ‘Afghan attack: Babies killed as gunmen storm maternity ward’, BBC News, 12 May 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-52631071

[13] Twitter account of 1 TV News AF, 18 May 2020, https://twitter.com/1TVNewsAF/status/1262371316310716416

[14] ‘Islamic State Claims Blast That Killed Afghan Journalist, Technician’, RFE/RL, 31 May 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/islamic-state-claims-blast-that-killed-afghan-journalist-technician/30644218.html

[15] ‘Afghanistan: Two killed in bomb attack inside Kabul mosque’, Al Jazeera, 2 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/wounded-suicide-attack-kabul-mosque-200602160137783.html

[16] ‘Deadly blast hits Kabul mosque during Friday prayers’, Al Jazeera, 12 June 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/deadly-blast-hits-kabul-mosque-friday-prayers-200612092826021.html

[17] ‘Afghan Human Rights Body Staff Killed In Kabul Bomb Attack’, RFE/RL, 27 June 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/two-members-of-afghan-human-rights-body-killed-in-kabul-bomb-ttack/30693806.html

[18] ‘Second explosion reported in Kabul city in less than 24 hours’, Khaama Press, 10 Aug. 2020, https://www.khaama.com/second-explosion-reported-in-kabul-city-in-less-than-24-hours-09013/

[19] ‘Kabul under rocket attacks on its 101st Independence eve’, Khaama Press, 18 Aug. 2020, https://www.khaama.com/kabul-under-rocket-attacks-and-on-its-101st-independence-eve-0980987/

[20] Mushal, M., Faizi, F., and Rahim, N., ‘With Delay in Afghan Peace Talks, a Creeping Sense of “Siege” Around Kabul’, The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/23/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-attacks-kabul.html

[21] ‘Kabul police chief sacked after spike in attacks’, Pajhwok News, 23 Aug. 2020, https://www.pajhwok.com/en/governance-politics accessed 24 Aug. 2020.

[22] Mushal, M., Faizi, F., and Rahim, N., ‘With Delay in Afghan Peace Talks, a Creeping Sense of “Siege” Around Kabul’, The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/23/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-attacks-kabul.html

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