Analysis of the Current State of the Insurgency in Afghanistan
During July and August of 2018, the security situation in Afghanistan has been dominated by a strong Taliban insurgency. The threat from insurgents is further augmented by other groups which exist in Afghanistan such as Islamic State – Khorosan Province (IS-KP) and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP).
This period has seen a continuation of the degradation of Afghan Government control in rural areas across the country as security forces struggle to hold on to isolated checkpoints and bases in hard to reach districts. The national level withdrawal to the major population centres in the face of Taliban military pressure as part of new strategy aimed at consolidating US involvement and ANSF resources has allowed the Taliban to seize and hold rural areas with relative ease.
In order to assess recent security related incidents in Afghanistan, this article aims to provide a summary of significant incidents in the July to August period across the country. In order to address regional-specific trends within Afghanistan, this article divides Afghanistan into four theatres; North, South, East and West.
Figure 1: Incidents in Afghanistan between July and August 2018
Security in North Afghanistan
The security situation in the north of Afghanistan can be characterised by three main themes, these being the recent clashes between IS-KP and Taliban militants, anti-government protests and clashes between security forces and the Taliban across all provinces.
In Jowzjan, the Taliban defeated the IS-KP enclave after heavy fighting in the Darzab and Qush Tepa districts throughout July. The collapse of the IS-KP enclave in this area effectively ended any major IS-KP presence in the north of the country, although the Taliban do appear to be searching for residents of the area who had connections with IS-KP. Throughout the fighting between the two groups, security forces played a minor role, mostly due to the lack of ANSF personnel positioned in the area, often restricted to compounds in the district centres. Some clashes involving the ANSF were still reported, for example on the 22nd of July the ANSF claimed that an IS-KP commander named Mullah Sarwar was killed during fighting with ANSF personnel in the Darzab district. Airstrikes in the area in the July-August period were highly infrequent relative to in East Afghanistan, as has been the case since former IS commander of the northern enclave Qari Hekmat was killed by a US airstrike. The Taliban offensive culminated with large numbers of IS-KP militants surrendering to security forces after their defeat appeared to be inevitable.
Figure 2: Incidents across North Afghanistan during July and August 2018
In neighbouring Faryab, attacks targeting the ANSF were predictably frequent, with most incidents being Taliban attacks on isolated checkpoints and convoys. Of particular concern to the Afghan Government was the surrender of approximately 40 ANSF personnel to the Taliban after a short siege of their base in the Ghormach district in mid-August. On the 27th of August, security forces completely withdrew from the Ghormach district, and were promptly ambushed by Taliban militants as their convoy withdrew, leading to heavy casualties on both sides.
Other areas of particularly high levels of insurgent activity in the north include Kunduz, Takhar and Badakhshan. In Kunduz the fighting mostly takes place in the Dashte Archi district. Close to the outskirts of Kunduz City security forces also carried out a series of air strikes in the province in mid-July which claimed to have targeted Taliban gatherings in the Chahardara district. Kunduz City itself records few high profile incidents, especially in comparison to cities such as Jalalabad and Kabul. Contrary to this trend, a media report from the 1st of August claimed that a suicide bomber was shot and killed by security forces in the Maidanpakhta area of Kunduz. The report, if true, is significant due to the relative lack of suicide bombings in northern cities.
Badakhshan and Takhar also host large levels of Taliban control, with many of Takhar’s northernmost districts bordering Tajikistan being contested by the Taliban and other militant groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Despite the lack of ANSF control over the Tajik border, incidents involving militants clashing with Tajik border guards are incredibly rare, (although drugs traffickers do frequently engage in firefights along the border.) An incident on the 26th August gained regional media attention when suspected Tajik military aircraft carried out airstrikes on the Afghan side of the border in the Darqad district. Initial reports claimed that strikes were related to a clash on the border with Tajik border guards which took place the day before, but doubts surrounding the validity of the connection were quickly raised. The Taliban acknowledged air strikes took place, but denied they were involved in the skirmish the day before. Tajikistan meanwhile, denied carrying out air strikes, as did Russia. With the major parties denying involvement, many aspects of the incidents remain unclear.
The Taliban have continued to erode the Government’s control in Badakhshan, with the most recent threat to a district centre (at the time of writing this article) being to the Nusay district. Security officials in the district centre announced late in August that the district would fall to the Taliban unless ANSF personnel were resupplied from the air.
Lastly, protests across the north in the major cities took place throughout July. The protests were mostly in response to the arrest of militia commander loyal to Vice President Dostum and a member of the Junbesh-e Islami group. The arrest of the commander acted as a catalyst for conflicts regarding ethnicity and identity which have existed in Afghanistan for centuries, and sparked a series of demonstrations across the North. Some elements of the protests suggested that they would pursue campaigns of independence if their demands for the commander’s release were not met, how serious these claims were is not clear, but the claims can not be said to be a dominant feature in the protests. The protests themselves do not appear to have been part of a well organised movement of social protests, but did nevertheless highlight vast rifts in Afghan politics which are yet to be bridged. Once these protests subsided, additional protests erupted over a decision to disqualify a number of candidates in the upcoming elections due to their affiliations with various militant groups in the past.
Security Situation in East Afghanistan
East Afghanistan represents a different security landscape to the rest of Afghanistan due to the strength of both the Taliban and IS-KP in the area. IS-KP maintains control over sections of territory in the Haska Mina, Achin and Nazyan districts of Nangarhar Province. IS-KP presence can also be felt in neighbouring districts across Nangarhar. IS-KP has also extended their influence into Kunar Province, where clashes between the Taliban and IS-KP are common, both sides have been active on social media to illustrate their activities during the clashes. Laghman has also been the host of numerous inconclusive clashes between the Taliban and IS-KP.
Figure 3: Incidents in East Afghanistan during July and August 2018
The US-led foreign war effort in Afghanistan’s strategy to target IS-KP appears to be largely reliant on air strikes against the group in Nangarhar and Kunar. As part of this air campaign, the IS-KP commander for Afghanistan, Abu Syed Orakzai, was killed by an air strike in the Jangal Khel area of the Khogyani district.
Figure 4: Location of IS-KP's commanders death during an operation in August 2018
The death of the commander represented a major media victory for the US, the USA’s allies and the Afghan Government, all of whom are searching for signs of success in the long war. How much impact the death will make is still not clear, although it is unlikely that this attack alone will induce the collapse of the IS-KP wilyat.
The Taliban attack on Ghazni City exposed the lack of security around population centres in Afghanistan.
Much like with Farah City, the Taliban have slowly surrounded Ghazni City through the capture and control of the surrounding districts. This control allowed the Taliban to cut off resupply routes leading to the beleaguered security forces defending Ghazni City during the main attack. Reports from Afghanistan during the fighting reflected the value of Taliban control of rural areas around the city, as on the 12th August the Taliban ambushed an ANSF convoy as it attempted to resupply the city as it travelled through Wardak Province. On the same day, a second convoy was also reported to have been ambushed in Logar as it travelled to Ghazni, this time the convoy allegedly contained US personnel. The fighting around the city ended when security forces pushed militants out of the city, causing heavy casualties on both sides. The Taliban, always effective on social media, were able to release video and photos of their fighters walking untested in areas of the city before they withdrew. Whilst the videos themselves were seemingly harmless with no combat taking place, the fact that militants were able to patrol in broad daylight in an urban area highlights the ANSF’s lack of control on parts of the city for a brief period of time.
The ANSF, with support from NATO personnel, was able to push the militants out of Ghazni City during heavy fighting, thus protecting urban centres in line with the shift in strategy. However to portray this as evidence of success for the Afghan Government is a misinterpretation.
Firstly, the mere fact that the Taliban were able to launch a large-scale assault on a major city without their large gatherings being interdicted by air attacks suggests that the Taliban are far from on the back foot.
Secondly, many reports regarding the attack ignore the extent of Taliban control in Ghazni Province and the number of district centres controlled by the Taliban. In the days during and before the attack, the Taliban also captured the Deh Yak, Khwaja Umari, Arjistan, Nawur and Jaghatu districts, effectively surrounding the city and giving the Taliban near total control of the entire province. It is worth noting here that Resolute Support claims to continue to administer these districts, but many of Ghazni’s districts are administered remotely, meaning they are administered from Ghazni City as security forces were pushed out of the district centres. The Taliban control of nearly the entire province significantly undermines Resolute Support and the Afghan Government and exposes the lack of security forces presence and influence in the country side.
Despite Wardak and Logar’s proximity to the capital, both provinces still are intensely hostile and feature high levels of insurgent activity. In Logar for example, the Taliban are believed to control the Azra district, and contest other districts within the province such as the Muhammad Agha district. Allowing insurgents to take control of rural areas proved to be a risky strategy, as on the 12th of August security forces travelling through Logar to reinforce Ghazni were ambushed by militants in the Baraki Barak district. The same theme can be observed in Wardak, the Taliban showed that their control of rural areas, and therefore major supply routes to urban centres, was in fact an important factor not to be dismissed out of hand. On the 12th of August, for example, Taliban militants attacked an ANSF convoy in the Syed Abad district as it travelled through Wardak to reinforce Ghazni City.
Despite the levels of violence which can be observed across Paktia Province, the area attracts very little regional and international media attention. Heavy fighting is frequently reported close to the Provincial Capital of Gardez between Security forces and Taliban militants, mostly in the Ahmadabad and Zurmat districts. Similar to themes seen in Ghazni, the Taliban have higher levels of control in the rural areas surrounding the provincial capital, rendering ANSF personnel and representatives of the Afghan Government highly vulnerable to a Taliban siege of the city. In this period there are not reports of IS-KP militants clashing with security forces in Paktia, but the group has recently conducted an attack in Gardez which targeted a Shia mosque, leading to large casualties. Whilst the attack was an anomaly, in that IS-KP related attacks in the province are rare, it also highlights a lack of security in the provincial capital, considered a stronghold of the Government. The threat posed to Gardez City was recognised by a Provincial Council member who claimed in late August that an attack on Gardez City is likely. The Provincial Council member’s claims appear to be based upon valid concerns.
Taliban activity in the south of Afghanistan has traditionally been high, and much like in other regions of Afghanistan, security forces control the provincial capitals and some district centres and militants dominate the rest.
Figure 5: Incidents in South Afghanistan throughout July and August 2018
Kandahar City is under the control of the ANSF, with large numbers of NATO personnel deployed at the airfield providing additional strength. The majority of the districts in the province are contested by the Taliban, with the Maruf and Miya Nishin districts being fully controlled by the Taliban. In the July-August period, a series of skirmishes were also reported close to the Pakistani border in the Spin Boldak district and surrounding area. The Afghan-Pakistan border in this area is relatively porous, with militants being able to travel into Afghanistan from Pakistan easily. Elsewhere in the province, security forces struggle to maintain control in the Maiwand district, through which the main road connecting Kanadahar and Helmand travels. On the 23rd of August, via mediation involving tribal elders, 31 road construction workers were released after they were kidnapped by the Taliban in the district. Whilst the release of the workers was a success for the Government, the entire episode represented an embarrassing failure in which the government was unable to protect its own workers.
Once again, the abduction of 31 road construction workers undermines comments made by Resolute Support and the Afghan Government which attempt to dismiss the capacity of the Taliban by highlighting the way in which their territorial control is almost exclusively rural.
The security situation in Helmand is much the same as that of Kandahar, in that security forces are in control of the provincial capital and a handful of district centres. The Taliban can however infiltrate Lashkar Gah from the surrounding rural areas which are mostly under the control of the Taliban, if not contested. The presence of foreign forces at the airfield in the outskirts of Lashkar Gah has gone some way in holding back the Taliban, with multiple air strikes being reported in the areas the west of Lashkar Gah, mostly in the Marjah district. It is also likely that foreign forces are stationed further to the north of Lashkar Gah, at an airfield between the Gereshk district centre and Tal Kala.
Afghan Government influence does not appear to extend very far from the outskirts of Lashkar Gah. Security forces are frequently struck by IEDs in the Gereshk district, with multiple skirmishes and airstrikes reported in the area adding to a sense of insecurity. Further north, in the Musa Qala district few incidents are reported, suggesting few security forces incursions into the Taliban controlled district.
Security forces have also struggled to maintain influence across all areas of Oruzgan Province. Tirin Kot, the Provincial Capital, unlike other southern provinces is highly contested. Frequent firefights are fought in the outskirts of the city, with security forces often resorting to air support. Resolute Support forces are positioned at the airport in Tirin Kot to provide security, although the exact number stationed there isn’t clear. On the 7th July, a US soldier was killed in an ‘insider attack’ at a checkpoint outside of the airport, which brought international attention to the lack of stability in the urban centre. In the surrounding provinces, the Taliban can operate with relative freedom, militants highlighted this freedom of operation by destroying a road bridge which connected the Charchino and Deh Rawood districts to Tirin Kot City in late August.
West Afghanistan records fewer incidents than north, south and east but still is classified as highly unstable. Taliban presence is felt across all of the western provinces and as expected, is strong in the rural areas. Farah Province saw the recent attack on Farah City in which the Taliban were able to seize and hold ground in the city itself, traditionally seen as a stronghold of government influence.
Figure 6: Incidents in West Afghanistan in July and August 2018
Farah City was under threat for a prolonged period of time in a similar way to other urban centres across the country. The Taliban controlled rural areas around the city, allowing militants to mobilise and travel in large groups around the city in preparation for the attack. Before the Taliban attacked the city, the Bala Bulok district was particularly unstable, with highly frequent attacks taking place in the area. After the Taliban were pushed back from the boundries of the city, insecurity continues to reign in the Bala Bulok district. Taliban attacks on ALP and ANA checkpoints have inflicted heavy causalites throughout the fighitng in the July-August period, showing that after the Taliban were pushed back from the city, the security forces were unable to extend their influence far from the cities borders.
In comparison to Jalalabad and Kabul, Herat City has seen relatively few suicide and IED attacks in the July-August period. Despite this relative security, attacks have still occured. A suicide bomber detonated their explosives close to an ANSF compound in the city on the 9th of August. In addition, on the 29th of August a magentic IED detonated in the city, killing one. The rest of Herat sees sporadic skirmishes with the Taliban, particularly in the north of the province. The Gulran, Koshk and the Koshki Kohna districts are all reported to have been contested by the Taliban, despite these being surrounding areas to the TAPI Pipeline project. Elsewhere, the Taliban maintain a strong influence in the Adraskan, Obe and Shindand districts.
Despite Afghan Government and US rhetoric, the Taliban’s control of the rural areas surrounding the all important urban centres can be and is wielded to significantly undermine government influence. In the case of Herat, the Taliban’s control of the northern districts means that they are able to interdict electricty supplies (and potentially gas if the TAPI Pipeline is constructed) which cities such as Herat are reliant on. On the 29th of August the Taliban were blamed by government officials for cutting electricity lines supplying Herat City. Whilst the accusation was not confirmed, it is plausible that the Taliban had stopped electricity supplies (which run to Herat City from Turkmenistan) in response to a security forces operation in the area.
The security landscape in Afghanistan remains in an uncomfortable status quo, in which the security forces control the major urban centres and rural Afghanistan is highly contested by the Taliban and other militants groups. On the surface it may appear that there have been no significant changes to this status-quo. However, current trends which have been allowed to develop for some time suggest otherwise.
In the July and August 2018 period covered by this article, the Taliban have applied consistent pressure to major urban centres across the country in Faryab, Sare-Pol, Ghazni, Paktia and Farah. Furthermore, the Taliban’s control of large areas of rural territory between the major urban centres has made resupply of ANSF units difficult.
It is likely that the Taliban will continue to attack urban centres in provinces where the Taliban have a strong rural presence. Current incident reports from Afghanistan suggest that cities such as Gardez and Maimanah are at an elevated level of risk to a Taliban attack similar to that on Farah and Ghazni cities. With this in mind, possession of urban centres has been an important aspect in the US and Afghan strategy. Loss of one of these centres would therefore be a major political failing, even if the tactical consequences are relatively insignificant. The high stakes guarantee that any attempt by the Taliban to seize and hold a major urban centre will be contested by security forces, eager not to lose face.