By Ankita Dutta*
The past year witnessed new trends emerging in the conflict in Afghanistan. The spring offensive brought along with it a renewed onslaught by Taliban with an increased number of attacks, suicide bombings, and assassination attempts. As per the data compiled by the United Nations, the Taliban insurgency had spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001. The United Nations security officials had rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme”. The primary reason for this new excess offensive was attributed to the fact that Pakistan military had been organising its counter-offensive in the North Waziristan region. This led to militants fleeing towards Badakhshan region in Afghanistan and bolstering the ranks of the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Following is an analysis of the changing trends in the Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Firstly, the pattern that emerges regarding the offensive by the Taliban was that they focused on the northern parts of the country. First, it was the Badakhshan region which faced the onslaught of the Taliban and then the fighting increased in the province of Kunduz. Badakhshan region was considered to be one of the safest and most peaceful parts of Afghanistan, but it is now considered as an unexpected locus of war.
The Taliban advanced across the country’s north capturing Kunduz which was a great propaganda victory for the Taliban, which had been suffering from internal strife related to succession within the structure. In fact, this was the first time in nearly 14 years that the Taliban had seized a provincial capital. Although Afghan troops mounted a counterattack against the Taliban fighters to reclaim the provincial capital, but only after the seat of the province remained under the control of the Afghan Taliban for three days.
US forces also conducted airstrikes in Kunduz to eliminate threats to the Afghan forces operating in the vicinity of Kunduz, in which however, they ended up targeting the only equipped, operational medical facility operated by Medicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) to the effect that the organization no longer runs the center.
The Afghan Taliban finally called to an end of offensive in October 2015, citing reasons such as preserving the lives of their fighters and to halt the unnecessary waste of ammunition. This attack which was led by only several hundred Taliban overwhelmed the equipped Afghanistan National Defense and Security forces, delivering a shock to those who had believed that the provincial capitals in Afghanistan were safer and more secured spots.
Secondly, Afghanistan forces have reportedly been straining to keep the Taliban militants at bay. As per a Kabul-based political and military analyst, the year 2015 was the worst fighting season in a decade. According to Col. Brian Tribus, Director of public affairs for the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, Afghan soldiers experienced 70% more casualties than ever. Civilian casualties were reported to have increased 10%. The policy adopted by the Afghan government in controlling the Taliban insurgency witnessed revival of an old strategy of forming local armed militias to battle the enemy. The idea was to replace the militias around the country with a unified, better-trained body that was more accountable to the government. There were voices of support towards the government sponsorship of militias, whereas voices of discontent also stated that militias might increase rivalries between armed groups on a large scale.
Thirdly, as the fight against the Taliban continued, there was a growing consensus that combat operations will not be able to end this war instead there must be a political solution to the crisis. Western political analysts and diplomats showed little optimism in maintaining of troops to reverse the deteriorating situation when there was lack of progress on the peace process. The ‘Heart of Asia’ conference and Quadrilateral Conferences resulted in a breakthrough as the Afghan government agreed to restart dialogue with ‘reconcilable’ Taliban with the help of Pakistan, the United States and China.
A declaration was issued at the conclusion of the Heart of Asia meeting, which urged all Afghan Taliban groups and other armed opposition groups to enter into peace talks with the Afghan government and agreed to put in place specific measures to deny terrorists access to financial and material resources, dismantle their sanctuaries and curtail their ability to recruit and train new terrorists. However, the Afghan Taliban rejected to join the peace talks with Afghan government. The factors cited by the group for not returning to the negotiation table include intensification of operations by Afghan forces, deployment of US troops to the battlefield and their participation in air strikes and continuing night raids, and the unmet preconditions that the insurgent group has set to join the negotiations.
Fourthly, the death of Mullah Omar did provide the biggest challenge for the Afghan Taliban to retain its cohesiveness, although many of the speculations related to its potential disintegration did not materialize.
With the wars of succession that splintered what was till then a united militant band, the Taliban did face an increasing threat of disintegration, especially since the Islamic State was reportedly making forays into this volatile country and was chipping at its base. The news of Mullah Omar’s death being unknown since 2013, highlighted that those closest to the centre of power were perhaps using the name of the Amir to keep their vested interests serviced.
The nomination of Muhammad Mansour, who was later killed in a drone attack by US, as the new leader raised many questions within the setup especially as he had maintained silence on the death of Mullah Omar, and had even put out false statements on his behalf endorsing the Islamabad sponsored peace talks and misleading the fighters. On the question of pursuing the peace process, clear divisions cropped up within the Taliban and between the two major factions that had emerged since the disintegration of this group; one led by Mansour and the other by Mohammed Rasool.
Fifthly, Taliban had been reportedly facing the heat in the form of the Islamic State. As the Afghan Taliban witnessed internal fissures, some of the disgruntled insurgents were reported to have shifted their loyalty to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State and self-declared Caliph of the Muslim world. According to reports, the IS were increasing their recruitments in Afghanistan; but the number so far was low, still it passed as a worry concerning that defections from the Taliban were at best sporadic in their nature, and often to sides that were not similar to it in their constitution and motives.
Despite the set-backs and changing geopolitical realities, Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with. The killing of the rehbar (leader) of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a drone attack did not so much result in the disintegration of this militant group as much as the speculations would have wanted (or perhaps, hoped) it to be like. In fact, the fairly quick and easy succession of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada to the post of the new leader of the group indicated that the movement is far from running out of its steam. An even quicker renunciation of the peace talks by the new leader, who faces opposition from the Rasool faction, if not so much in intensity, though, continues to hint at how the Afghan Taliban is still working as a heady roost.
The Taliban has recast its mission from one resisting foreign occupation to one that is confronting a government it considers a western pawn. So far the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan implies two theories of an eventual endgame: The first is to hang on until the Taliban implode through internal strife, perhaps encouraged by the targeted killings of their leaders; the second is to hang on until the Taliban are willing to negotiate some tolerable power-sharing arrangement. However, there is no immediate prospect of the first outcome, while the second one has been brought no closer by the killing of Mullah Mansour.
*Ankita Dutta is a Research Scholar at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi She can be reached at: [email protected]