By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On March 1, 2019, at least 23 Afghan soldiers were killed and another 15 injured as Taliban militants attacked the Shorab Military Base in Helmand Province. In the retaliatory action, the Afghan Security Forces (SFs) killed 20 militants.
On February 16, 2019, Taliban militants carried out an attack on a security post in a remote area of Kandahar Province killing all 32 men posted at the base. One of the attackers was also killed.
On January 21, 2019, at least 126 Afghan SF personnel were killed in an attack in Maidan Wardak Province. A Taliban suicide bomber drove and exploded a captured military Humvee packed with explosives into a training center of the National Directorate for Security (NDS). At least two other Taliban gunmen followed, spraying the compound with gunfire before they were shot down. “We have information that 126 people have been killed in the explosion inside the military training centre, eight special commandoes are among the dead,” an unnamed defense official disclosed.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 265 Afghan SF personnel have died in the current year so far (data till March 3, 2019). During the corresponding period of 2018, Afghanistan recorded for 162 Afghan SF fatalities. Through 2018, there were a total of 1,526 SF deaths. Afghanistan recorded 517 Afghan SF fatalities in 2017, 778 in 2016, 1,222 in 2015 and 770 in 2014.
This data, however, likely reflects enormous under-reporting.
Indeed, on January 25, 2019, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani disclosed, “Since I’ve become president… over 45,000 Afghan security personnel have paid the ultimate sacrifice.” [No year wise break up was provided]. Ghani was sworn in as President on September 29, 2014. Ghani also stated that, since then, “the number of international casualties is less than 72,” and argued that this “shows who is doing the fighting”.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officially concluded its combat mission in Afghanistan at an event held at ISAF headquarters in Kabul on December 28, 2014. Since then, Afghanistan Forces have been on forefront in fight against terrorist formations operating across Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the number of militants killed since Ghani assumed office on September 29, 2014, is 46,858 according to the SATP database. A total of 11,684 terrorists were killed in 2018 as against 10,798 in 2017. The number of militant fatalities was 11,469 in 2016; 10,628 in 2015; and 955 in 2014, since September 29, (total fatalities through 2014 were 6,030). At least 1,324 terrorists have already been killed in the current year (data till March 3, 2019).
Evidently, the Afghan SFs are facing a tough battle since September 29, 2014. Though they have achieved a positive kill ratio of 1: 1.04, the sheer scale of SF fatalities clearly does not suggest a strong position of advantage. On the contrary, the ratio was significantly in favour of SFs between 2007 and 2013, when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was in lead and the Afghan Forces were supporting them. During this period, the kill ratio stood at 1:2.01 (14,406 SF personnel; 29,028 terrorist).
Unsurprisingly, casualties among civilians, the best indicator of the prevailing security scenario in any theatre of conflict, have been rising since 2014, with the exception of 2017. More worryingly, 2018 registered 3,804 fatalities among civilians, the highest ever recorded by UNAMA since 2009 [when the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) first began counting civilian fatalities]. The previous high of 3,701 fatalities was recorded in 2014. The fatalities in the civilian category remained under 3,000 for four out of the five years between 2009 and 2013. Civilian fatalities stood at 3,133 in 2011.
Meanwhile, according to the latest quarterly report released on January 30, 2109, by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of October 22, 2018, only 54 per cent of Afghan Districts were under the influence or control of the Afghan Government, as against 72 per cent in November 2015. On the other hand, Districts under insurgents influence or control increased from seven per cent in November 2015, to 12 per cent in October 2018. Similarly, Districts ‘under contention’ increased from 21 per cent in November 2015 to 34 per cent in October 2018. In absolute terms, in October 2018, there were a total of 74 Districts under Government control and another 145 under its influence, as against 12 under insurgent control and 38 under their influence. The number of contested Districts was 138. Afghanistan has a total of 407 Districts.
Conspicuously, the overall security situation in Afghanistan has rapidly deteriorated since the ill-advised deployment of under prepared Afghan Forces in the lead role in fight against terrorism, in the aftermath of the premature withdrawal of ISAF personnel in December 2014. However, instead of realizing and correcting its mistake, the US is now contemplating a further troop cut and a ‘final exit’ from the theatre. In an attempt to justify his stand on withdrawal, US President Donald Trump argued, on January 2, 2019,
|… So you take a look at other countries. Pakistan is there; they should be fighting. But Russia should be fighting. The reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is it was a tough fight. And literally, they went bankrupt. They went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot these places you’re reading about now are no longer a part of Russia because of Afghanistan. But why isn’t Russia there? Why isn’t India there? Why isn’t Pakistan there? Why are we there, and we’re 6,000 miles away?|
Apart from the evident ignorance of both history and geopolitics manifest in this statement, it is clear that the US is now virtually admitting defeat and has intensified attempts to reach out for a face saving solution, even as the Taliban becomes more powerful than it has been at any stage since 2001. Indeed, the two sides have held several rounds of negotiations in Qatar, UAE and Pakistan over the past many months. On March 2, 2019, just a day after the March 1, 2019, attack on the Helmand Military base where both the Afghan and US Forces are stationed, and, which killed 23 Afghan personnel, the US resumed talks with the Taliban in Doha. Referring to the talks, Taliban ‘spokesperson’ Zabihullah Mujahid in a statement released on March 3, 2019, disclosed,
|The current round of talks in Doha are advancing on a step-by-step basis. As the issue at hand is immensely crucial and delicate, its progression is taking place with that much care and vigilance. The talks during January saw an agreement regarding withdrawal of occupying forces and preventing Afghanistan from being used against others, but this round of talks are about the details and nature of these two issues. It should be mentioned that no understanding has so far been reached about any agreement or document.|
Ironically, on February 25, 2019, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad thanked Pakistan for facilitating the travel of Taliban leaders to Qatar for the current round of talks held in Doha. An unnamed US embassy spokesperson in Kabul revealed on December 15, 2018, “The United States welcomes any actions by the Pakistani government to promote greater cooperation, including fostering negotiations between the Taliban, the Afghan government, and other Afghans.” A day earlier, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan had disclosed,
|By the grace of Allah, the dialogue is now happening inshallah [God willing] on the 17th and Pakistan has facilitated the talks between America and the Taliban. Imran did not share further details. Significantly, the US has sought to put intense pressure on Pakistan to end support to the Taliban and Haqqani network on numerous occasions in the past, and has targeted terrorists connected with these formations repeatedly on Pakistani soil in a succession of drone attacks.|
Pakistan the principal destabilizer in Afghanistan has thus been ceded the role of central player by the US in the talks with the Taliban. The move has rightly been opposed by the Afghanistan. In a letter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Afghanistan’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Nazifullah Salarzai observed, on February 15, 2019, that Pakistan’s invitation to the Taliban amounted to a violation of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty. The letter argued, further, that as there was no co-ordination with the Afghan Government, this process posed a serious threat to the country’s security. In a tweet, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sibghatullah Ahmadi added, Pakistan’s move not only undermines the ongoing peace efforts but also falls in violation of UNSC Resolution 1988.
The possibilities of peace in Afghanistan are rapidly receding, as Pakistan and its terrorist proxies, emboldened by the ‘defeat’ of the US and its Coalition partners, are likely to create more chaos in the country, and potentially in the wider South Asian region. Forces rooted in an ideology of religious hatred and extremist unreason are progressively being promoted with the active cooperation of the US and its partners, even as an elected Government at Kabul is marginalized in the negotiation process.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management