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Taliban announce commencement of Al Khandaq military operations.

April 27, 2018

Summary: a standard Taliban announcement of combat operations for this year, showing a bankruptcy of imagination on many levels

On 25th April, in a now ten-year long tradition, the Taliban officially announced the commencement of their “Spring Offensive”, the symbolic end to what is historically seen as the lull in combat operations through winter and a return to the summer campaigning season.  The statement, in the region of 1,300 words long, claims that religious centres are now being targeted by the US and highlights the legitimacy of the Taliban struggle.  Four main reasons are given for the struggle:

  • The damage and casualties caused by foreign forces
  • Trump’s new strategy is bringing in “thousands of additional foreign forces”
  • US military bases prove there is now US/Kabul government interest in peace
  • Immoral anti-Islamic behaviour is increasing in areas controlled by the US and the Kabul government.

The announcement explains the meaning of the “Al Khandaq” (“The Trench”) operation title.  The defence of Medina by Mohammed in the 7th century was conducted partly by trench works and resulted in the decisive defeat of a coalition army of Arab Bedouin tribes.  The prime targets for 2018 are the US forces, with “internal supporters” – the Kabul regime – as secondary targets.  The announcement exhorts Taliban fighters to operate in complete compliance “with the rules and regulations of the Islamic Emirate” and avoid causing civilian casualties.

Analysis and Outlook

I have been studying these announcements for some years – there have been, to my count, ten of these formal Spring Offensive announcements.  In terms of pure word count, this is the longest one yet.  Last year’s announcement was the shortest since 2009: this 2018 declaration is twice as long as 2017.  I have searched through them each time, trying to look for hints or indicators of policy shifts and new ideas.  They are sometimes evident to a small degree: 2010 was the first time they talked about avoiding civilian casualties, doubtless recognising the negative propaganda this was creating.  In 2011, as a clear anti-talks statement, the High Peace Council was identified as a legitimate target.  In 2012, a “Recruitment Commission” was introduced.  In 2014, the exhortation to continue the fight even though NATO was pulling out showed a concern that Taliban fighters might have a “mission accomplished” moment and go home.  But these announcements have become fairly standard in content.  I am reasonably confident I could write them myself now.  An inspiring title generally references one of Mohammed’s battles.  The inherent contradiction and fate-tempting risk of calling operations “Victory” or “Success” year after year seems to have been recognised.  Naming them after deceased Taliban leaders serves only to highlight the vulnerability of their commanders.  Keeping it in the 7th century is a safe option, filled with inspirational leaders and battles.  Demonstrations of the legitimacy of the cause in the face of indiscriminate violence, oppression and moral corruption come next.  Some references to guerrilla tactics and the priority targets – US and foreigners first, Kabul “puppet” regime second – come next.  In this announcement these are very brief and generic.  Near the end, lip service is paid to the idea that Taliban fighters should pay careful attention to avoidance of civilian casualties: a strong contradiction, given the indiscriminate violence caused by the IEDs and suicide bombings which are the favoured tactics in the towns and cities.

See my comments on Taliban 2017 announcement

See my comments on Taliban 2016 announcement

See my comments on Taliban 2015 announcement

There are a few points to be made about this year’s announcement.  The choice of “The Trench”, clearly invoking a defensive operation against a superior force, is mildly curious.  Does this suggest they are planning to let a coalition army – this time, US-led – exhaust itself attacking Taliban-held districts, or is the choice simply an inspiring victory of the outnumbered against the many?   No reference at all is made to peace talks of any sort – no acknowledgement that President Ghani had made an offer, nothing that could have been inferred “between the lines” to show willingness for dialogue in certain conditions.  No reference is made to the high number of casualties the Taliban have caused through suicide attacks and other bomb attacks.  No reference is made to Islamic State, now their competitors, if not Afghan-wide, but certainly in some provinces and districts in eastern Afghanistan.  The Taliban give the US forces primacy for targeting, yet the US do not have any ground troops engaged in significant combat – and their forces levels (for all the Taliban talk of “thousands of additional foreign forces” coming into Afghanistan), the international military presence is a mere tenth of its peak level in 2011 (140,000 or so).  This is almost entirely Afghan Muslim fighting Afghan Muslim.  But the Taliban seem to need the Americans as the main demon in order to maintain recruitment and fervour.

My overriding sense is that the Taliban are trapped by their own rhetoric and lack of imagination about what to do for the future.  They operate purely as a military campaign, run by a military economy, powered by a propaganda machine and running a form of religious martial law in areas that they claim to control.  The Americans seem blinkered in different ways – trapped by their own logic of training the Afghan Army to be able to do what the Americans were doing in Afghanistan ten years ago – albeit the ANSF are surely going to be generating many more civilian casualties now they have been given exciting new artillery and aircraft.

It is not impossible that talks are ongoing behind the scenes – this has been the case over the last few years.  But, other than Mr Ghani’s commendable and doubtless sincere, efforts to trigger some talks, there looks to be no credible diplomatic structure or reach out from anywhere.  The hints of growing popular protest and demonstration by the people, tired of indiscriminate violence, are cause for encouragement but are very fragile and may well come to nothing.  If there is any notion that the Taliban want to do – or are capable of doing – anything other than fight, then they are keeping it very well hidden.

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