In recent months the complexity of the reality in Afghanistan has come out in its entirety, from the lack of agreement between the United States and the Taliban, to chronic and increased political instability. These factors make the threats that the country is facing even more complicated. Until last September, the US negotiated directly with the Taliban on four fundamental points:
- Assurances that the country would not be used as a safe haven for terrorist groups
- Withdrawal of allied troops
- Intra-Afghan dialogue
When a high-level deal seemed close, on September 7, 2019, US President Donald Trump announced that those talks, led by US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, had been cancelled. Trump said that “in order to build false leverage” the Taliban had admitted to a suicide car bomb attack that had killed an American soldier and 11 others in the capital of Kabul. “I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations,” he wrote. Trump was referring to the death of a US soldier on September 5 in a Taliban attack in Kabul.
It is not clear if or when negotiations will be restarted. Representatives of the Afghan government were not directly involved in these talks, making the government of President Ashraf Ghani even weaker and more unstable. Trump’s intention to withdraw, or greatly decrease NATO and US military presence, complicates the situation in Afghanistan. A large-scale withdrawal would lead to the collapse of already-weak institutions as well as an almost-certain Taliban takeover of the country. Levels of violence in the country are still high and presidential elections were postponed from March to September due to massive logistical and political difficulties that have made their organization very challenging, which is also dependent on aid from international donors.
The government currently in office is the product of a mediation agreement brokered by the US. Since both Ghani and senior Afghan politician, Abdullah Abdullah, claimed victory in the 2014 presidential elections, Abdullah was made prime minister and Ghani remained president. However, the lack of clarity of the content of the agreement, regarding the definition of the roles and responsibilities of president and prime minister, is largely due to internal political tensions, so much so, that the competences attributed to the prime minister largely derive from widely divergent interpretations of the agreement that led to the establishment of the National Unity Government. Ghani, however, is widely seen as the main beneficiary of a centralized constitutional framework which confers considerable powers on the presidency.
The government has also been constantly challenged by the opposition led by former president, Hamid Karzai, who has consistently criticized Ghani for his policies, from security and foreign policy issues to internal governance and his relations with Abdullah. Ghani also faced very strong internal opposition from both Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Governor Atta Mohammad Noor. Noor is one of the most important members of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, which represents the country’s Tajik minority. The effect of these contrasts, probably favored by internal ethnic opposition, was, in July 2018, the launch by important national leaders, including Dostum and Noor, of an electoral alliance, the Great National Coalition of the Afghanistan.
The increasingly polarized political situation in Afghanistan, as well as the weakness of the National Unity Government, have introduced into Afghan society the tendency towards political fragmentation along ethnic lines. These fractures, which have always existed in the complex Afghan ethnic-socio-political scenario, seem to have become more radicalized since 2014, probably because it has been manipulated by domestic opponents and also by foreign elements (Russian and Iranian), which aim to undermine American efforts to politically stabilize Afghanistan.
Political instability sparks increase in violence
Political instability and conflicts between the government and the opposition, in the elections held in October 2018, led to delays, irregularities and serious violence during the election campaign and also during consultations. Ten candidates were murdered during the campaign and dozens of civilians were killed and hundreds injured during the clashes. The peace talks between the Taliban and the US have failed precisely in the final stages of the delicate presidential elections, postponed twice and whose main candidates are Ghani and Abdullah. The election results should be announced by the Electoral Commission in the coming weeks. The elections saw more than 70,000 members of security forces deployed across the country to protect voters. Despite massive security, at least four people were killed and 80 injured in bomb attacks on voting centres.
Military pressure has effectively slowed the territorial expansion of the Taliban and many Taliban fighters have been killed in the last year. However, the group managed to maintain a strong presence within the districts that make up Afghanistan, along with a high operational capacity to carry out deadly attacks across the country.
The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has released a recent report which shows the number of civilian deaths, within the span of three months, to be the highest since 2009, citing the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) as the source. The report states that there were 4,313 victims in the three-month period, consisting of 1,174 deaths and 3,139 wounded, with a 42% increase in civilian casualties compared to the same period last year. SIGAR also reported that Afghanistan suffered 4,554 civilian deaths, a 39% increase in the number of civilian casualties from June 1 to September 30, 2019, compared to the same period last year, reversing the decline reported at the beginning of the year. The increase in civilian casualties, according to the report, was due to a high number of terrorist attacks that included the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
SIGAR also points out that the Taliban has increased attacks on the ANDSF and the coalition this quarter. Overall, from January to September, the Taliban were responsible for 3,823 civilian victims, 46% of the total victims at that time. During the months of July, August and September, UNAMA documented a whopping 72% increase in civilian casualties caused by IEDs compared to the same period in 2018. In addition, in the first nine months of 2019, UNAMA documented 8,239 civilian victims (2,563 deaths and 5,676 wounded), from January 1 to September 30, anti-government elements caused 5,117 civilian deaths (1,207 dead and 3,910 wounded), equal to 62% of all civilian victims during the period. The UNAMA report demonstrates the strong impact of election-related violence on civilians, carried out by the Taliban with a strategy of violence and intimidation in order to interrupt presidential elections in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, UNAMA data indicates that the attacks against the electoral process caused 458 civilian casualties (85 killed and 373 wounded), including 277 civilian victims (28 killed and 249 wounded) on September 28, Election Day, and more than one third of the civilian victims were children. The report not only documents the damage to civilians caused by the Taliban in interrupting the elections, leading to over 80% of civilian casualties related to the elections documented in the report, but also highlights a very precise pattern of kidnappings, threats, and intimidation and the harassment perpetrated by the Taliban against civilians before and during the elections. However, the Afghan government has generally been able to maintain control of Kabul, main population centres, most of the main transit routes, the provincial capitals and most of the district centres.
Having said that, the Taliban continue to test the ability of Afghan security forces to respond and prevent attacks by perpetrating high-profile attacks (HPAs), particularly in the capital region, to attract media attention, create the perception of a widespread insecurity, and destabilize the Afghan government.
Who are the Taliban?
The Taliban are a militant Islamist group dedicated to applying a rigorous form of Sharia Deobandi throughout the country. The group has two main objectives: the removal of foreign forces from the country and the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to use the Emirate name to reinforce their opinion that their old regime is the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and not the current government, which they consider a foreign-imposed “puppet” regime.
“Allowing the Taliban to refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate, even in parentheses, allows them to build the narrative that they forced the US to negotiate an exit from Afghanistan just as the mujahideen had forced the Soviets out”. Since the Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan following an invasion by the US in 2001, control of the country’s group has fluctuated widely. In reference to a report by SIGAR, as ofJanuary 31, 229 districts were under the control of the Afghan government, which represents about 56.3% of the total Afghan districts.
Military efforts against the Taliban
The Afghan Security Forces are trying to regain control of portions of territory previously under Taliban control. Recently, the Afghan forces recaptured Wardooj district in Badakhshan Province, and 50 foreign militants were killed during the operations. Also, in the past six months, 12 districts in Ghazni, Badakhshan, Kunduz, Takhar and Faryab provinces have been fully cleared of Taliban, according to the interior ministry. The Khwaja Omari district in the central Ghazni province was also wrested from Taliban control. The results, lately, have become more positive, but the difficulties faced by the army and security forces are complex. The battles to regain control of territories by the Taliban are continuous and difficult, especially because of the group’s use of IEDs in heavily-populated areas.
While the insurgency in Afghanistan is certainly led by the Taliban, there are other allied groups that are also fighting for the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. One such group is the network of fighters led by veteran mujahideen leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, commonly known as the Haqqani Network. This group has as its main area of operations in the south east of Afghanistan, in the provinces of Paktika, Paktia and Khowst. The Haqqani Network essentially operates as an autonomous group in eastern Afghanistan, although it shares close ideological links to the Taliban. The objectives of the Haqqani network are the departure of all foreign forces from Afghanistan and the restoration of the Islamic Taliban Emirate. These more recent objectives, outlined in a 2010 interview with leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, require the complete withdrawal of international coalition forces before negotiations with the government can take place. Sirajuddin maintained this tough position as a Taliban vice leader, hindering more moderate elements of the group’s leadership. Counter terrorism operations have severely limited the operational capacity of the Haqqani network and its ability to continuously regenerate itself in North Waziristan in Pakistan. Also, the death of the group’s founder, Jalaluddin Haqqani, in September 2018, reduced the threat of the group.
However, the biggest threat after the Taliban is that of the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). Following the announcement by the Islamic State of the creation of Wilayat Khorasan, which covers Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, at the end of January 2015, the group launched a series of attacks against Taliban militants; the aim was to attract former Taliban commanders and mujahideen, dissatisfied with the Taliban leadership, with the desire to become part of a group with ambitions far beyond Afghanistan.
Since its inception, ISIS has been exposed to harsh criticism regarding its brutality and its extreme interpretation of Islamic scriptures. In September 2014, 126 of Muslim leaders and scholars around the world published an open letter addressed to ISIS chief Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in which they explained why ISIS does not represent authentic Islam. Various jihadist organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have blamed ISIS leadership for distorting the true meaning of jihad and harming the fight against the Crusader enemy. As a direct result, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued a fatwa against the declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State, calling him “haram” (forbidden) and stating that Al Baghdadi was a “false caliph”.
Despite the fatwa, IS-K has shown an impressive capacity to resist counter-terrorism operations, challenging Taliban control of Afghan territory, especially in areas where it is stronger, such as the Nangarhar Province of eastern Afghanistan. IS-K has increased its recruitment in this area and was able to launch several suicide attacks in 2018, on urban centres, especially in Kabul. Its first attack on a voter registration center on April 22 killed at least 57 people, including eight children. Just over a week later, on April 30, 29 people, including at least nine journalists, were killed in two consecutive suicide attacks. The first suicide bomber detonated his explosives near the buildings of the National Security Directorate (NDS) and the second, apparently disguised as a journalist, blew himself up about 20 minutes later, near the Ministry of Urban Development where the journalists had gathered to cover the first attacks.
IS-K continued to conduct significant mass-casualty attacks in its areas of operation in June, July and August. On August 3, 39 people were killed in a light weapons and suicide attack against a Shiite mosque in the town of Gardez, in the province of Paktika. The group focused on Kabul and key provincial capitals during the October 2018 parliamentary elections, and future attacks are expected to follow the same pattern. Currently IS-K is contained in the eastern regions of Afghanistan, but the group is likely to expand, coordinating with cells present in Kashmir, a fertile area for Islamic fundamentalism. The IS-K strategy, in fact, is local, aimed at degrading trust in democracy, exploiting sectarianism and sowing instability, but also global, by expanding its recruitment and activities in Afghanistan in order to organize attacks against Western countries.
In conclusion, it is certainly difficult to predict what could happen in the country if the balances, whether political or concerning homeland security, should change. Ghani said, in an interview with CBS, that the Afghan Armed Forces would not last more than six months without US support, and the government would collapse with significant implications for neighboring countries, such as Pakistan. The country’s difficult balance is based on support for Afghan security forces, NATO and US financial support and the direct support provided by coalition operations for counter-terrorism operations.