With its spring offensive this year, the Afghan Taliban is seeking to add momentum to its insurgent campaign to topple the country’s Western-backed government. For its part, Kabul hopes a peace deal with the notorious Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the renewed resolve of Washington and its NATO allies, will see it remain resilient.
But while the Afghan government enjoys international legitimacy and support, it faces a robust insurgency and the increasing involvement of great power interests suggests the situation will remain troubled.
The Taliban strategy combines efforts to overrun the countryside with a relentless terrorism campaign in the cities. The aim is to topple the current Afghan government, which has pledged to create a moderate, inclusive and democratic state, and replace it with the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate (the formal name of the movement).
On April 28, the Taliban announced the beginning of its annual spring campaign in this regard, repeating its vow to continue targeting U.S.-led NATO forces and Afghan security forces. The most intriguing part of the declaration, however, was its attempt to project the image of an alternative Taliban government.
“Mansouri operations will differ from previous ones in nature and will be conducted with a twin-tracked political and military approach,” a Taliban statement said, using the formal name of the Taliban offensive.
It said that in regions captured by the Taliban, “particular attention will be paid to establishing a mechanism for social justice and development so that our people can live a secure and prosperous life,” and added that “state-building will earnestly proceed and institutions will be erected to secure the social, security, and legal rights of the citizens” (Taliban statement, April 28).
A week before the announcement, on April 21, around 10 Taliban attackers massacred more than 130 Afghan soldiers inside Camp Shaheen, the base of Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps headquarters, in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
A Taliban statement called the attack “a reminder to regime soldiers that they should not needlessly sacrifice their lives for the foreign occupiers and either join the ranks of the Mujahedeen or else desert ranks and go back to their homes.”
The statement reiterated the longstanding Taliban stance that the Afghan government is a U.S. puppet. “The soldiers are trained by the Americans, equipped with their weapons and their wages paid by the Pentagon. How can they claim they fight for their homeland and not for their foreign cashiers?” (Taliban statement, April 23).
Areas of Taliban Control
The insurgents appear to be in no mood for peace talks. Instead, they want to accelerate their push to overthrow the government. An editorial on the pro-Taliban Nun Asia website recently taunted Kabul for its inability to protect government forces: “During this sensitive war environment, the government’s security institutions are so weak that their enemies are able to mount war games within their lines. Now, how many chances of survival does this regime have?” (Nun Asia, April 25).
On the Taliban’s official website, an article entitled “The Anarchy Surrounding the Two-Headed Kabul Regime” claimed that the national unity government is moving rapidly toward disintegration. “The line of authority is devolving and blurring with each passing day,” said article, published on April 24.
“Cabinet members openly contradict and oppose government policies and directives. Each group blames the other for the ongoing chaos. Each party is developing parallel links with foreign powers to strengthen their hold on power” (Taliban article, April 24).
The Taliban is clearly confident and eager to build on territorial gains achieved since more than 100,000 Western-led troops began departing Afghanistan at the end of 2014 and NATO declared the end of major combat operations. In a March report entitled “Percent of Country Under the Control of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate,” the Taliban listed regions under their control in more than 400 districts across Afghanistan’s 34 provinces (Taliban report, March 26). That claim to dominate 45 districts across the country is significantly more than the nine districts that U.S. forces acknowledge the Taliban controls.
The Taliban also briefly signaled apparent interest in peace talks. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is interested in finding a lasting solution to the problems in Afghanistan,” a March 7 statement said. However, it also reiterated that the Taliban continue to seek nothing less than complete victory.
“Defending our nation and our followers is our legitimate right, and we are ready to defend it on the negotiations table and in the trenches,” the statement said. “Fighting is not our choice, but it has been imposed on us” (Taliban Statement, March 7).
Nearly 16 years after their rule was ousted by the U.S.-led intervention in late 2001, the Taliban continue to regard themselves as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.
Kabul has sought to counter the Taliban with a mixture of military muscle, counterterrorism operations, international aid and a public commitment to reconciliation.
In late March, the government unveiled a four-year plan to reform and strengthen its security forces, which now number nearly 350,000 (Tolo News, March 31). The plan includes doubling the number of special forces, currently at 17,000, as well as plans to strengthen the fledgling air force and intelligence services. It is also committed to improving the overall discipline of forces, which continue to struggle with corruption and desertions. In one positive sign, Afghan special forces, despite being stretched across a vast battlefield, have shown that they are capable of delivering debilitating blows to the insurgents.
Kabul has also hardened its rhetoric toward the Taliban. “Taliban leaders enjoy a life of luxury,” President Ashraf Ghani told Afghan forces in February. “Each one takes several wives, and their children enjoy opulence. Yet some of them employ the name of our sacred religion to foment violence and savagery” (Tolo News, February 27).
A few days later, Ghani characterized the insurgents as aiding and fomenting terrorism, saying the Taliban were responsible for “20 disparate terrorist groups” operating in Afghanistan. Many of these date back to the Taliban’s stint in power in the 1990s. As well as hosting al-Qaeda, the Taliban invited Central Asian extremists affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and supported an array of Pakistani militants fighting in the Indian administered Himalayan region of Kashmir. The group has kept up these alliances and contacts in the intervening years, and some of these same groups are once again active in Afghanistan, albeit under new leaders and new identities.
“While they are different organizations, their crimes and the harm they cause to our people are the same. The Taliban have paved the way for all these groups to operate,” Ghani told the Afghan parliament (RFE/RL Gandhara, March 09).
Kabul is hoping the entry of a major Islamist warlord into the government fold will substantially weaken Taliban claims to be fighting for Afghanistan’s liberation from foreign occupation. Hekmatyar, leader of Hizbe-Islami Afghanistan (HIA), one of Afghanistan’s oldest jihadist factions and largest Islamist parties, denounced the insurgency as “unholy” when he returned to the government side after two decades of opposing it. In a direct challenge to the Taliban, he said: “We invite you to join our caravan of peace. Abandon your meaningless, vulgar and unholy war” (Khaama Press, April 29).
The Taliban have avoided directly commenting on Hekmatyar’s comments, but a pro-Taliban website accused him of “talking dangerously” and employing “taunts and insults” (Nun Asia, May 3).
Kabul is also counting on a new Afghan strategy from U.S. President Donald Trump.
General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recently called for the deployment of more troops. Hundreds of U.S. soldiers, including Marines, have joined 13,000 NATO troops (which already include 8,400 Americans) still in the country and there are signs Washington will commit as much as $20 billion annually to the Afghan war.
During a visit to Kabul on April 24, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared to pledge continued support for Afghan security forces, describing 2017 as “another tough year for the valiant Afghan security forces and the international troops who have stood and will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with Afghanistan”.
Western officials worry that covert Russian aid and Moscow’s treatment of the Taliban as a legitimate party in the conflict is complicating efforts to resolve the situation in Afghanistan.
In April, General Nicholson complained of the “overt legitimacy lent to the Taliban by the Russians” since 2016, and warned there were continued reports of Russian assistance to the group and hinted this has helped it perpetrate attacks such as the devastating raid on a military compound in Mazar-e-Sharif, in which 140 Afghan soldiers forces were killed (RFE/RL Gandhara, April 28). The attack, which came just days before the Taliban announced its spring offensive, was one of the deadliest the country has seen on a military base.
The criticism of Russian maneuvering suggests increasing unease in Washington over Taliban contacts and cooperation with Russia and Iran.
In recent years, the insurgents have cultivated relations with the two countries, including supplying weapons and military training. Pakistan, the Taliban’s principal foreign backer, appears supportive of these ties and has joined Russia and China in an apparent diplomatic push to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table without involving the United States.
While Kabul been critical of Moscow’s involvement — in particular the Russian endorsement of the Taliban’s call for a full withdrawal of foreign troops from the country — it is keen to avoid a diplomatic showdown (Khaama Press, April 2).
As its spring offensive evolves, the Taliban is likely to attempt to capture and retain a major population center, likely a provincial capital. Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Helmand Province, or Kunduz, in the country’s north, appear to be prime targets for a Taliban takeover. Key to achieving such a goal would be the acquisition of new weapons, such as an advanced anti-aircraft system, but there are no indications so far that any of its old or new backers are ready to commit such major resources to the group.
In a U.S. Senate hearing in February, General Nicholson described the security situation in Afghanistan as a stalemate. It remains to be seen whether that deadlock can be broken this year.