Riots, Renewed Attacks Underscore Taliban Resilience

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 21

Riots erupted following a deadly May 29 collision between a U.S. convoy and civilian vehicles in Kotal-i-Khairkhana outside Kabul. Within minutes, angry protesters surrounded the convoy, hurling stones at coalition troops and chanting “death to America.” Within hours, the Afghan capital was under siege as an estimated 2,000 rioters attacked police stations, hotels, restaurants and private shops (Pajhwok Afghan News, May 29). As shots rang out in central Kabul, British Marines evacuated 21 EU diplomats from the city.

Culminating with the Kabul riots, the past week witnessed the most intense fighting in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. By week’s end, Afghan and coalition forces reportedly killed nearly 400 militants in operations spanning 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Of that number, as many as 80 insurgents perished in a coalition air strike on alleged Taliban strongholds of Azizi and Taloqan in Kandahar province on May 22. Although none of these developments match the intensity of the violence in Iraq, they nonetheless underscore widespread resentment within Afghan society and the corresponding resilience of Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgency.

Recent events speak for themselves. On May 21, a lone suicide bomber detonated a car bomb in Kabul. On May 23, militants attacked a convoy in Helmand carrying the province’s deputy governor and chief of police. On May 24, Afghan National Army General Rahmatullah Raufi reported major clashes between coalition troops and suspected Taliban forces near Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province. On May 25, the International Organization for Migration reported that some 3,000 Afghan refugees had fled fighting in their villages and taken refuge in Kandahar city (Dawn, May 26). Roadside bomb attacks on both Afghan and international humanitarian relief organizations are also on the rise.

Three factors contribute to the recent upswing in insurgent violence. The first is tactical. Spring’s arrival brings the opening of numerous mountain passes separating remote insurgent strongholds on both sides of the Durand Line from Afghanistan’s major population centers. The result is a substantial improvement in the Taliban’s mobility and internal lines of communication. According to anonymous sources close to coalition forces in Kabul, militant formations—typically numbering between six and 30 insurgents—are once again able to converge upon pre-selected targets at pre-selected times before fading back into the remote villages from which they are drawn.

The second is strategic. The Taliban’s offensive follows the recent handover of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to Canadian command and the concurrent reduction in U.S. forces. Confusion arising from this force rotation presents an opportunity for insurgents to gauge their adversaries’ capabilities and readiness. Yet this transition represents more than a mere changing of the guard. With the coalition set to deploy some 6,000 British, Dutch and other troops to southern Afghanistan later this summer, the Taliban may be using the threat of a Soviet-style insurgency to test—and ultimately undermine—public support in NATO member states.

The third factor is political. Starting in Spring 2005, militant operations gradually moved from ambushes and assassinations toward overt attempts to re-establish effective territorial control. In some provinces—most notably Khost, Paktika and Paktia—the Taliban’s presence renders normal governance virtually impossible. In others—Helmand, Ghazni and Uruzgan—Taliban forces are gradually expanding their dominance on a district-by-district basis (Terrorism Focus, May 17, 2005). The desire to govern is also evident in the insurgents’ continued focus on political rather than economic targets. As one former British Army officer in Kabul told Terrorism Focus, “the Taliban are preserving their own operational base and the physical infrastructure necessary to stage a return to power.”

Long evident in so-called “night letters” and roadside proselytization, the Taliban’s resilience presents two significant dilemmas for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. First and foremost, the extensity and intensity of recent violence challenges official allegations that foreign powers are undermining Afghan instability (Terrorism Monitor, May 18). Although traffic between Afghanistan’s southern regions and Pakistan’s predominantly Pashtun North-West Frontier Province allegedly represents a valuable source of Taliban manpower, the geographic breadth and depth of last week’s attacks suggest a significant degree of indigenous support among ethnic Pashtuns far removed from the Durand line. Against that backdrop, militant leader Mullah Dadullah’s claim to control some 20 districts in the former Taliban heartland reflects both his burgeoning confidence and growing influence.

Second, the Taliban’s resurgence threatens to exacerbate longstanding ethnic and regional factionalism. With tensions running high, some Afghan parliamentarians are openly questioning the Karzai administration’s decision to arm loyal Pashtun tribes in Konar and other remote provinces in the south while continuing the disarmament of Tajik and Uzbek militias in the north. Rightly or wrongly, some opposition politicians view that policy as a form of ethnic discrimination. Others emphasize the potential military consequences. “If the Taliban capture areas where there are militia groups, the newly armed militias will have two options: the first option is that they will be disarmed by the Taliban and the second option is that they will join the Taliban,” argued MP Saleh Mohammad Regestani in a recent television interview. “I think the second option is more likely” (Aina TV, May 21).