By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Just after 5:30 am AST [Afghanistan Standard Time] on November 12, 2016, terrorists carried out an explosion at Bagram Airfield in the Bagram District of Parwan Province, the largest United Stated (US) military base in Afghanistan. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which is heading the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) in Afghanistan, issued a statement that “An explosive device was detonated on Bagram Airfield resulting in multiple casualties. Four people have died in the attack and approximately 14 have been wounded.” No one has claimed responsibility for the attack so far.
At around 11 pm on November 10, 2016, a vehicle laden with heavy explosives detonated in the vicinity of the German Consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, in Northern Afghanistan. The explosion followed an exchange of fire between the Security Forces (SFs) and the terrorists which lasted till the early hours of November 11. Though all German employees of the Consulate General remained safe, at least four Afghan civilians were killed and another 128 Afghans, including 19 women and 38 children, sustained injuries in the attack. The explosion also damaged more than 100 homes and shops. Claiming responsibility for the attack, Afghan Taliban ‘spokesman’ Zabihullah Mujahid stated that heavily armed fighters, including suicide bombers, had been sent “with a mission to destroy the German consulate general and kill whoever they found there”. Germany heads the NATO-led RSM in Northern Afghanistan.
In another major attack, at least 13 persons – seven students, one professor, two security guards of the University, and three SF personnel – were killed and another 45 persons, including 36 students and staff members and nine SF personnel, were injured, when terrorists carried out an attack targeting the well guarded American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in capital Kabul on August 24, 2016. The attack, which commenced at 18:30 AST after the attackers exploded a car bomb at a University entry gate, stormed into the University complex and opened gunfire, lasted for almost 10 hours. SFs eliminated two terrorists, bringing an end to the attack. There were about 750 students on Campus at the time of the attack. According to reports, the attackers had made their way past the University’s armed guards and watchtowers, lobbing grenades and checking out their maps.
Over a fortnight earlier, on August 7, 2016, two professors of the same University – an American and an Australian – were abducted at a gun point from near the University campus. Their whereabouts are still unknown. Significantly, the AUAF was founded with US help in 2004.
On August 4, 2016, Afghan Taliban terrorists attacked a group of 12 foreign tourists – eight from the United Kingdom, three from US and one from Germany – escorted by an Afghan Army convoy in the Chesht-e-Sharif District of Herat Province. At least seven people were wounded in the attack.
These incidents are not in isolation. Terrorists inside Afghanistan are continuing with their long avowed policy of targeting foreign interests, including that of US, United Kingdom (UK), India and others. Unsurprisingly, the US Department of State in a release on November 10, 2016, disclosed, “The US Embassy in Kabul has received reports regarding a possible pending attack targeting foreigners at the Serena Hotel and a guest house located in PD-10 Kabul City. The attack may be carried out by multiple suicide bombers at each location.”
Though there is a lack of data on total fatalities among foreign civilians in Afghanistan, according to The Aid Worker Security Database, at least 147 foreign nationals working as aid workers have been either killed (40) injured (29) or abducted (38) in Afghanistan between November 24, 2002, and July 9, 2016. Moreover, according to icasualties.org, at least 3,525 foreign troopers, including 2,389 personnel from the US, have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) launched its operation in Afghanistan. 40 of these fatalities have been recorded since December 28, 2014, when ISAF ended its combat operations in Afghanistan. Following the ‘completion of ISAF’s mission’ at the end on December 28, 2014, the new, follow-on NATO-led mission, RSM, was launched on January 1, 2015, to provide training, advice and assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and institutions. According to official figures, RSM consists of 13,453 US and Coalition personnel as of September 17, 2016. Of that number, 6,939 are US forces, 4,934 are from the 26 NATO allied partners, and 1,580 are from 12 non-NATO partner nations. The number of US forces conducting or supporting counterterrorism operations is not known.
Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to hold ground in areas of its consolidation. According to the 33rd Quarterly report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released on October 30, 2016, approximately 63.4 per cent of the country’s districts are under Afghan Government control or influence as of August 28, 2016, a decrease from the 65.6 per cent reported as of May 28, 2016. Giving further detail, the report says that out of 407 districts within the 34 provinces, 258 districts were under government control (88 districts) or influence (170), 33 districts (in 16 provinces) were under insurgent control (8) or influence (25), and 116 districts were “contested”. Referring to the Islamic State (IS), the report said that it was operating primarily in three to four districts including Nangarhar and Kunar — a decrease from the nine to 10 districts the group populated in 2015.
Nevertheless, the country continues to record a further surge in violence. The midyear report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan published on July 25, 2016, prepared by the Human Rights Unit of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which covers the period from January 1 to June 30, 2016, indicates that at least 5,166 civilians suffered casualties – 1,601 deaths and 3,565 injuries – during this period. This is the highest number of such casualties recorded during the first six months of a year since 2009, when UNAMA began systematically documenting civilian casualties. During the corresponding period of 2015, at least 4,982 persons had suffered casualties – 1615 deaths and 3,367 injured. There is no further authentic/systematic data available on civilian fatalities in Afghanistan. Partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) has recorded 418 such fatalities since July 1, 2016 (data till November 11, 2016). Meanwhile, fatalities among ANSF personnel remain alarmingly high. According to the SIGAR report, between January 1, 2016, and August 19, 2016, at least 5,523 ANSF personnel were killed and an additional 9,665 personnel were wounded. The number of ANSF personnel killed through 2015 stood at 6,637 and another 12,471 injured. Though there are no systematic estimates of the number of insurgents killed, partial data compiled by the ICM indicates that the insurgents have also been suffering significantly increased fatalities. The number of terrorist fatalities, which stood at 2,702 in 2013, increased to 6,030 in 2014, and further to 10,628 in 2015. So far, in 2016, 10,931 terrorists have been killed (data till November 11, 2016).
Despite mounting losses, the Taliban remains unrelenting. Following Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential Elections, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, stated, on November 9, 2016, “Most importantly, he (Trump) should withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and unlike other former US rulers, he should neither seek any more titles of ignominy for his self and American generals, nor worsen the American prestige, economy and military by engaging in this futile war…” Trump will assume office on January 20, 2017.
There are indications that the war in Afghanistan will intensify further, with increasing and more incidents of the Taliban targeting foreign establishments/individuals in an environment of overall insecurity within the country. A US revaluation of its Af-Pak policy appears likely under Trump. During the course of a debate while he was on the campaign trail, on being asked, “do you pull out of Afghanistan and let the Taliban take over”, Trump responded, “I don’t know that Afghanistan is much — as much of a problem as Pakistan, because everyone is telling me they’re all in Pakistan; they’re not in Afghanistan.” However, on further and insistent questioning, he acknowledged that he would withdraw US troops out of Afghanistan. In the same breath, however, he asserted, “I don’t believe too much in the soldier concept, other than I believe in air power. You’re sort of seeing that over in Libya. You can knock the hell out of them without losing soldiers and losing lives and arms and legs.” Qualifying his statement further, when asked “You kill (sic) a lot of civilians though”, he added, “Well, not necessarily if you have good intelligence. You know, intelligence is the thing that this country is lacking, especially from its leadership.”
On an American radio show on September 21, 2015, Trump had called Pakistan “probably the most dangerous country in the world today”, adding, “You have to get India involved… They have their own nukes and have a very powerful army. They seem to be the real check…. I think we have to deal very closely with India to deal with it (Pakistan).”
Much of this is incoherent, and Trump’s projections about an Indian role are probably unrealistic. It is, however, unlikely that US AfPak policy under Trump will be ‘more of the same’. Crucially, Pakistan’s role in supporting terrorism in Afghanistan will come under close examination, though the outcome of such scrutiny remains currently uncertain.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management
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