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Taliban announce 2017 Spring Offensive

April 28, 2017

Summary: The Taliban announce their annual Spring Offensive.  This will see an uptick in attacks as they attempt to wrest more territory from the control of government forces.  This year the Taliban place new emphasis on political and social efforts in areas they consider under their control.  

Taliban in ANA uniform prior to Mazar attack

The Taliban Spring Offensive promises more “insider attacks”

On their official website, the Taliban today announced the commencement of the Spring Offensive for 2017.  The operation is named “Mansouri”, after the Taliban’s leader from 2013-2016 and who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan.  The announcement presents the idea of the Taliban now holding control over most of the country and thus developing a political as well as military strategy:

With the help of Allah Almighty and the infinite sacrifices of our Mujahid nation the foreign forces have suffered a historic defeat having been forced to admit that the Mujahideen control more than half of Afghanistan. Hence, keeping the evolving situation in mind, this year’s Mansouri Operations will differ from previous ones in nature and will be conducted with a twin-tracked political and military approach.

Analysis and Outlook

The declaration of a Spring Offensive is now an annual and predictable part of the Taliban’s media playbook.  It does tend to be followed by a few complex and suicide attacks over the coming days and weeks, usually focusing on cities, including the national capital as a good means of attracting media attention.  We may now also see larger attacks against government security positions in the outlying provinces, particularly after their spectacular and deadly attack in Mazar-e Sharif that killed well over hundred Afghan soldiers.  Recently, the Taliban have become emboldened by the idea that they are now starting to control major swathes of territory.  They make some ambitious and implausible claims.  But it remains difficult to sift through what the Taliban and the Government forces do in fact control: this often comes down to who passed through the area last or whose flag is flying in the village police station.

And some reports say that the Afghan government effectively now only controls 60% of Afghan territory, with the Taliban controlling 10% and 30% contested.  This New York Times report, from December 2016, draws on senior US military sources and summarises the difficult situation at the end of 2016:

“Afghanistan’s security crisis is fueling new opportunities for Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other extremist groups, Afghan and American officials say, voicing concerns that the original American mission in the country — removing its use as a terrorist haven — is at risk.

As intense Taliban offensives have taken large portions of territory out of the Afghan government’s hands, those spaces have become the stage for a resurgence of regional and international militant groups… Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the United States Central Command, said the Afghan government now controls only about 60 percent of the country, the Taliban hold sway over about 10 percent, and the remainder is contested. Which group or groups fill those voids of increasing ungoverned territory in Afghanistan ‘is something we’ll have to contend with’, he said… Over all, Western and Afghan officials estimate that 40,000 to 45,000 militants are active across Afghanistan. The Taliban are estimated at 30,000 fighters, some of them seasonal. But the rest are foreign militants of different — and often fluid — allegiances, at times competing but mostly on the same side against the Afghan government and its American allies… The immediate existential threat to the Afghan government has been a resurgent Taliban, who officials say have been killing 30 to 50 members of the security forces each day in recent months. The insurgents are directly threatening important provincial capitals and have again made important roadways hazardous or impassable to government forces.”[1]

Other than the attempt to present a formal distinction between political and propaganda efforts in areas under Taliban control and an intention to intensify the battle against international and government forces, the tone and content offers neither anything particularly new or any detailed clues as to intention.   

These operations will involve conventional attacks, guerrilla warfare, complex martyrdom attacks, insider attacks, and use of IEDs to achieve their objectives…

There is a now standard reminder to fighters that they should try and minimise civilian casualties.

the Mujahideen will be required to scrutinize their targets and places so as to minimize civilian casualties paying heed to the principles of necessity and proportionality.

We should expect to see an uptick in Taliban attacks in the coming weeks: they will be keen to press home any perceived advantage against the regime, whether territory controlled, casualties inflicted or government instability.  The lack of a coherent Trump policy regarding Afghanistan probably also gives them a wedge to drive into government stability.  But it also remains possible that the Taliban get caught out by over-confidence.  For the moment, peace talks between protagonists remain a pipe dream – the Great Game continues.

[1] Mashal, M., and Schmitt, E., ‘Afghan Security Crisis Sets Stage for Terrorists’ Resurgence’, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/02/world/asia/afghanistan-security-terrorism-taliban.html?_r=0

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