FPI Bulletin: A Year of Setbacks in Afghanistan

November 9, 2015

By FPI Associate Analyst Lauren McNally

For three days in September, the Taliban occupied Kunduz, marking the first time since 9/11 that the group has taken control of one of Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. The attack followed a year in which the Taliban has expanded operations to nearly every region of the country, with its gains highlighting the deficiencies of both the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the American effort to support them. Although President Obama responded to this growing threat by slowing the withdrawal of the last 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely such a small change will be enough to stop the Taliban’s current advance. The insurgents’ unprecedented gains this year, alongside a resurgent al Qaeda and a growing Islamic State presence, all threaten to reverse the hard-won gains of the past decade.

The Taliban Resurgence

The most recent fighting season in Afghanistan has been one of the most violent to date. In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on October 6, General John Campbell noted that “there was no winter lull and, since February, the fighting has been nearly continuous. Casualties on both sides have risen and the violence has moved beyond the traditional insurgent strongholds.” Casualties in Afghanistan for the first half of 2015 have already eclipsed the total for the same period in 2014, the deadliest year on record so far. A recent UN report also indicated that as of early September, almost half of Afghanistan’s 398 districts were under either “high” or “extreme” Taliban threat.

Northern Afghanistan, once considered one of the safest areas of the country, is now the principal area of Taliban growth. Since June 2014, Pakistani military offensives have driven hundreds of foreign militants, many with ties to al Qaeda and the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, to seek sanctuary in Afghanistan, and these militants have invigorated the northern insurgency. This year, well before the fall of Kunduz in September, Taliban and other insurgent groups surrounded the city in April and nearly took over an army base and the airport on its outskirts. In the summer, the Taliban overran at least four districts in Kunduz and numerous other districts throughout Afghanistan’s north. Militants also carried out attacks in previously peaceful provinces, including a mosque bombing in Baghlan province and attempts to seize a military base in Badakhshan province. Despite multiple ANSF attempts to expel threats from these provinces, militants remained entrenched among the local population and ANSF reinforcements deployed in April were spread too thin. This forced the government to rely increasingly on support from local militias, many of whom operate like armed gangs that often abuse and terrorize civilians, thereby adding to insecurity in the region.

The ANSF’s inadequate response to insecurity in the north was instrumental in the Taliban’s seizure of Kunduz on September 28. Although the insurgents were outnumbered and less well-equipped than the ANSF, the militants maintained a presence in the city for at least fifteen days, during which they reportedly looted buildings, carried out extrajudicial killings, and released hundreds of inmates from the city’s main prison. The district governor, Zalmai Farooqi, said “the problem wasn’t lack of security forces, but there was no good leadership to command these men.” For months, Kunduz citizens warned officials about militant gains near the city. The Afghan government sent reinforcements to the province, although these troops only established checkpoints that proved largely ineffective at stopping the September assault on the city. In addition to security concerns, a lack of services and bad governance by corrupt and ineffective local officials alienated much of the city’s population, prompting some locals to support the Taliban. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called government corruption an endemic issue in Afghanistan and has gone so far as to declare a “holy war” against it. Today, Kunduz remains threatened by militants entrenched outside the city limits. Even after security forces announced the city was cleared of insurgents, the Taliban assured in a statement “we can come back and seize the city whenever we want.”

The fall of Kunduz came after a period earlier in the summer when peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban generated hope of a negotiated end to the conflict. President Ghani made significant efforts earlier this year to improve relations with Pakistan, which continues to shelter the Taliban’s senior leadership. This outreach culminated in official talks between Taliban emissaries and Afghan government officials hosted by Pakistan in July. However, the news of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar’s death on July 31 scuttled the talks, soured relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and pushed the Taliban into a leadership crisis that ended with the appointment of Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansour as the new supreme leader. Despite Mansour’s appointment by the Taliban official council, infighting among Taliban dissidents led to speculation that the Taliban would further splinter into more radicalized groups or that dissatisfied Taliban fighters would flock to other jihadi bands, including a burgeoning branch of the Islamic State. In part, the autumn offensive that led to the  seizure of Kunduz was an effort by Mullah Mansour to demonstrate his effectiveness as the insurgency’s top commander. As violence continues across Afghanistan and Mansour continues to combat threats to his legitimacy, the prospects for renewed peace talks have become increasingly remote.

Under the leadership of Mansour, the Taliban used the momentum generated by the fall of Kunduz to escalate its insurgency in nearly every area of the country. In the last month, the Taliban has clashed with security forces for control of the highway that connects Kabul to the country’s southern provinces. Militants have since launched offensives threatening other provincial capitals, including Maimana in northwest Faryab province, Ghazni City south of Kabul, and Lashkar Gah in southern Helmand province, where operations are ongoing.

The Return of al Qaeda and the Rise of the Islamic State

In addition to the Taliban, al Qaeda has also made significant gains in Afghanistan in the absence of U.S. combat troops. Al Qaeda is ramping up both its training capacity and combat role in Afghanistan, and many al Qaeda-linked entities relocated operations to Afghanistan following Pakistani military operations this past year. Foreign fighters linked to al Qaeda notably played a significant role in the Taliban-led seizure of Kunduz. In October, the United States conducted a large-scale operation against two al Qaeda training camps in Kandahar province. The two camps were hit with sixty-three airstrikes in what U.S. military spokesman Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner called “one of the largest joint ground assault operations we have ever conducted in Afghanistan.” In previous years, top U.S. officials had said that there were only a few traces of al Qaeda left in Afghanistan and that they were located mainly in valleys in the eastern parts of the country. Taking out these camps demonstrates the extent of operations necessary to stymie the reemergence of al Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan.

The Islamic State is also seeking to expand its foothold in the country. Under the ISIS affiliate Wilayat Khorasan, insurgents carved out a significant stronghold in several districts in eastern Nangarhar province. While the group remains a fraction of the size of the Taliban, Wilayat Khorasan has made a name for itself with its public displays of brutality, including one instance where militants executed local tribal leaders by forcing them to sit on explosives. During his October 6 testimony, General Campbell upgraded the group’s presence from “nascent” to “operationally emergent”.  A recent UN report revealed that ISIS is recruiting defectors from other jihadist groups in at least twenty-five of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces, and enduring rifts within the Taliban leave it vulnerable to ISIS. Clashes between ISIS and Taliban forces demonstrate Wilayat Khorasan’s intent to establish a stronghold in Afghanistan, and its desired expansion will constitute an even greater challenge to embattled Afghan security forces.

How to Support Afghan Forces

To combat these threats, the Afghan National Security Forces require sufficient air power, which has largely disappeared along with the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. Close air support remains a vital component in Afghan-led security operations, particularly in preventing massed Taliban assaults on population centers like Kunduz. A report from the Center for Strategic International Studies argues, “[I]t is critical to understand that, as the Taliban gains in areas like Kunduz have shown, drastic cuts have occurred in the use of combat airpower that have done much to enable Taliban gains, limit the experience and capability of ground forces to use air strikes effectively, and increase the net level of warfare in populated areas and civilian casualties.” Air power for Afghanistan requires not only planes, but also technical training and proper intelligence in order for the Afghan Air Force to carry out these operations effectively with minimal civilian casualties. The tragic and avoidable airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital during Kunduz operations further highlights how U.S. air coordination and training with Afghan allies is lacking. Without proper intelligence, coordination with local forces and ground spotters, and meaningful force numbers, U.S. airpower will not be sufficient to prevent Taliban expansion into urban areas.

In his October testimony, General Campbell warned, “At this stage, without adequate international and U.S. funding support and an appropriate coalition troop presence to oversee the proper expenditure of such funds, the [ANSF] could potentially collapse.” Campbell’s warning is emblematic of how much the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated since the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces in 2014 and is reminiscent of the aftermath of the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq. The U.S. departure from Iraq led to the corruption and degeneration of U.S.-trained security forces, which were ultimately unable to confront the threat of ISIS. The United States cannot afford to let Afghanistan become another Iraq. Increased U.S. support and training for the ANSF is essential to prevent the loss of Afghanistan as a partner in the continuing fight against terrorism.

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