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Taliban’s Spring Offensive and the Consequences

Col Rajeev Agarwal is a former Research Fellow at IDSA and a research analyst on West Asia. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 03, 2013

    On 24 May, the Taliban launched a large-scale attack through a suicide car bomb outside a compound of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Kabul. The attack came eight days after six American soldiers and civilians and nine Afghans were killed in a similar suicide car bombing in Kabul. Two major attacks in Kabul in such a short span have shaken the security set up in Afghanistan. The peaceful transition by 2014 looks threatened by the Taliban offensive and could discredit the process of reconciliation and transition.

    Earlier, the Taliban announced that this year's spring offensive 'Khalid bin Waleed' would begin on April 28. The Taliban stressed that they would focus on suicide assaults on coalition installations, use ‘special military tactics’ and ‘collective martyrdom operations,’ as well as ‘insider attacks’ or ‘green-on-blue’ attacks.1 Taliban has traditionally announced its spring offensive every year highlighting their focus for each summer. To recall, the 2012 spring offensive was named ‘Al Farooq’ and focused on targeting Afghan security personnel and government officials while the spring offensive in 2011 ‘Al Badar’ focused on "military centers, places of gatherings, airbases, ammunition and logistical military convoys of the foreign invaders in all parts of the country”2.

    While the previous Taliban spring offensives were met with the international coalition forces launching their own intense summer campaigns, this year, however, the coalition is winding down its military campaign. The additional 33,000 troops of the 2010 military surge3 has already gone back home and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are being gradually put in charge of operations. Sharp increase in violent incidents in the first four months of 2013 is an indication of things to follow in the year. According to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, the increase in violence in 2013 has been dramatic. There were 2,331 attacks by Taliban in the first quarter, compared with 1,581 in the same period last year, an increase of 47 percent4. There is also a significant increase in number of encounters and IED attacks. IED attacks have accounted for 55.8 % (24 out of total 43) coalition war casualties this year, an increase from 42% (132 out of total 312) war casualties last year.5

    Another significant factor being witnessed this year is the reduced number of coalition deaths and a dramatic increase in ANSF soldiers getting killed in encounters, reflective of the fact that more and more ANSF teams are taking part in active operations. In the first quarter of 2013, Taliban attacks against international military forces made up only 4 percent, compared with 73 percent against the ANSF (the rest are against civilians). 1,183 Afghan soldiers were killed in the year ending March 20, 2013, compared with 841 in the year ending March 20, 2012, an increase of 40 %. On the other hand, international coalition casualties have reduced from 183 for period January-May 2012 to only 66 till 26 May 2013 this year with US casualties being reduced from 135 to 53 for the same period.6

    Reconciliation talks do not seem to be moving forward. There has been stalemate in talks with Taliban since 2012, partly due to the reason that there has been no agreement on transferring Taliban captives from the Guantanamo detention facility to a form of house arrest in Qatar and partly over Qatar’s failure to fully assure the US that the detainees would not escape custody.7 Although President Karzai was successful in talks with Qatar on the issue of Taliban opening office in Qatar in March this year8, there is hardly any forward movement.

    Taliban’s Game Plan

    The game plan appears quite clear. With the coalition military campaign coming to a closure and the ANSF responsible for more than 80 % of the operations,9 the Taliban sees this as a favourable opportunity to re- assert its influence in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s recent offensive posture may have been influenced by multiple factors. First, there has been a growing discontent within the Taliban regarding reports of rapprochement with the senior Taliban leadership. Second, the Taliban realizes that it is timely to discredit the coalition and the ANSF efforts in stabilizing the security situation and thus would help in gaining moral and physical ascendancy before 2014. The Taliban has also realized that the present situation is ideal to regain influence in areas lost over the past two years.

    Thus, the Taliban, in its latest spring offensive has clearly displayed two distinct features. First, it is attempting to regain its foothold in areas where it had lost influence while seeking opportunities to expand its influence in newer areas. Secondly, there seems to be a definite focus towards conducting attacks on high profile targets. Some of the recent high profile attacks include:

  • Taliban assassination of the head of the Afghan High Peace Council Malim Shah Wali in an ambush in Helmand province on May 1.10
  • A prominent anti-Taliban police chief, Abdul Ghani of the Khak-i-Safid district in western Farah province was shot dead by Taliban on May 17.11
  • Earlier, Taliban suicide bomber targeted Zabul Governor Ashraf Nasiri's convoy in the provincial capital of Qalat on April 6. The governor escaped but the attack killed three coalition soldiers12.
  • Kabul is back on the radar of Taliban strikes. As many as four major strikes have taken place in Kabul this year. One of the attacks was even launched by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) group, which had not conducted many high profile attacks in past two years due to various reasons including dissensions. Some of the major attacks in Kabul are:

    • A suicide assault on the main headquarters of the Afghan National Directorate of Security on January 16.13
    • A suicide assault against the Traffic Police Headquarters on January 21. Three policemen were killed in the attack.14
    • On May 16, a suicide bomber in an explosives-packed vehicle blew up a two-car American military convoy, killing at least 15 people including six Americans. The attack was claimed by HIG.15
    • On May 24, the Taliban launched an attack at complex of UN agency, International Organization for Migration (IOM) resulting in death of one Afghan police officer.16

    As mentioned earlier, the Taliban has substantially shifted in its efforts to regain areas of lost influence. Till now the main battlefields had been in the southern provinces, from Helmand and Kandahar across to Paktika, Paktia and Khost. Now the focus is on the eastern provinces, Laghman, Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan. This was clearly evident when a Taliban suicide assault team killed five Afghan policemen in an attack on a police headquarters in the eastern province of Nangarhar on March 26.17 Soon after 200 Taliban fighters overran a military outpost in the Narai district in Kunar Province on April 1218 and a suicide attack killed the head of the provincial council Mohammad Rasol Mohseni and 13 others in Baghlan province on May 20.19

    Also, new fronts are developing in the western parts of the country that were once little affected by the war. A suicide bomb and gun attack on a courthouse in the capital of Farah province on 03 April left more than 50 people dead and 90 injured20, seven people were killed and three injured after an IED hit a civilian truck traveling to the town of Shindand in Herat Province on April 1721 and seven policemen died when their vehicle hit an IED planted on the road in the Chishti Sharif district of Herat province on May 21.22

    Even in traditional areas like Helmand where Taliban had lost some influence in the past two years, there is a clear effort to regain its influence. It was evident when hundreds of Taliban fighters launched attacks on police posts in the Sangin district in Helmand on May 20. As many as 26 Taliban insurgents and four policemen were killed.23

    Prognosis

    The Taliban spring offensive is clearly aimed at exploiting the situation and driving home the advantage. The present lull in coalition operations and indecision on the future outlook of international forces is adding to the Taliban’s advantage. There is still no clarity on the US and Afghanistan bilateral security agreement and neither on the number of military bases that the US will hold after 2014. That apart there is no confirmation on the number of troops that would remain in Afghanistan post-2014.

    President Obama’s speech at the National Defence University on May 2324 has not inspired a great deal of confidence vis-a-vis Afghanistan. While claiming that the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat, there was no mention of the Taliban threat in Afghanistan. Instead, Obama talked of increased focus on areas other than Afghanistan like Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and North Africa. Clearly, the focus is now on somehow completing the transition by 2014.

    The Afghanistan government and the coalition forces will have to take cognizance of the recent Taliban tactics. Success achieved over the past decade can’t be allowed to be weakened due to the lack of focus in military campaign. A near stable security situation is a must for transition to take place in 2014 which would warrant reining in the Taliban offensive.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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