What's happening in Afghanistan? August 2019 Update
As the USA and the Taliban enter peace talks to decide the future of Afghanistan, fighting continued throughout the country between security forces, the Taliban, and at times Islamic State (IS-KP.)
August 2019 saw the Taliban mount two attacks on the northern cities of Pul-e-Khumri in Baghlan Province and Kunduz City in Kunduz with both attacks representing a major escalation. Elsewhere in the country, IS-KP continues to wield influence in eastern provinces, where sporadic fighting between security forces, the Taliban and IS-KP was reported.
This analysis investigates what's happening in Afghanistan with the aim to place significant incidents recorded in August within the broader context of ongoing fighting across the country. In order to do so, the country will be divided into five regions; East, West, North, South and Kabul.
In August, East Afghanistan saw a continuation of themes which have been ongoing throughout the year. In Kunar Province, fighting was reported in the Mazar Valley between IS-KP and the Taliban, seemingly with few major strategic or operational consequences. ANSF presence in the valley is minimal, but clashes involving security forces are still reported elsewhere in the province.
A video was also released online in August which claimed to show Taliban fighters openly visiting families in the Chapahar district (Kunar). The video, if true, suggests a lack of continuous ANSF presence in the district’s villages. Kunar remains a contested province between the Taliban, IS-KP and security forces, with security forces keeping a tenuous hold in the province’s remote valleys.
The eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Wardak and Ghazni both show high levels of insecurity in August. Nangarhar’s security situation is best understood as a complex web of various militant groups, opposed by the security forces and government-aligned militias. The majority of the fighting in this period occurred in the Achin, Khogyani and Pachir Wa Agam districts, where both IS-KP and the Taliban are present.
Actual clashes between IS-KP and security forces are less frequent than those between Taliban and security forces elsewhere in the country, as IS-KP control is largely restricted to more remote mountainous areas close to the Pakistani border. Taliban presence in this area is also significant, with many attacks being mounted against Afghan Local Police (ALP) positions in Khogyani and Pachir Wa Agam.
Nangahar’s provincial capital Jalalabad sees frequent IED and suicide attacks and this continued in August with two high profile incidents. On the 19th August, six explosions were reported across the city in a complex attack carried out during Independence Day celebrations wounding approximately 66 people.
On the same day, rockets were fired at another celebration in Laghman City, Laghman Province. The second attack in Jalalabad came in the form of an IED planted outside of the Pakistani Consulate, wounding a police officer and two civilians. It's not clear who carried out the attack.
In Ghazni and Wardak provinces, fighting is reported daily, with much of the fighting taking place along the Kabul-Kandahar highway which runs through the centre of the two provinces. The geographical spread of the incidents suggests that government control in both Ghazni and Wardak is essentially limited to the main road and district centres. The insecurity in both provinces can be seen in frequent incidents close to both Maidan Shah (Wardak’s provincial capital) and Ghazni city in the form of IED attacks, skirmishes, airstrikes and ambushes.
Whilst East Afghanistan saw continuity in the pace and locations of fighting, the north of the country saw a significant increase in incidents, culminating in two Taliban assaults on the major population centres of Kunduz City and Pul-e-Kumri.
In Balkh Province, heavy fighting was reported in the Chimtal and Char Bulak districts to the west of the provincial capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, as well as in the Sholgara and Chahar Kint districts. The Sholgara and Chahar Kint districts generally record very few incidents relative to Chimtal and Char Bulak, and reports of regular fighting here represent a break from the norm.
In Takhar, on the 30th August, the Taliban launched a series of coordinated attacks across the province, targeting the Darqad and Chay Ab districts on the Tajikistan border. The result of the fighting is unclear, with both sides claiming victory. Reports from the time of the fighting suggest that the Taliban were able to overrun a number of ANSF positions during the fighting, inflicting heavy casualties.
In what appears to have been an attempt to spread government forces thin, the Taliban then launched attacks on Kunduz and Pul-e-Khumri cities at the end of the month. The attack on Kunduz city (31st August) was eventually beaten back by security forces, but only after militants were able to enter the city amidst heavy fighting. Fighting then continued to be reported in the districts close to the outskirts of the city.
Video released during the fighting showed large convoys of Taliban militants on motorcycles heading travelling on motorcycles to join the fighting. The video was filmed in broad daylight, suggesting a minimal threat of airstrikes.
The assault on Pul-e-Khumri followed a similar pattern of events to those seen in Kunduz, with the initial attack taking security forces by surprise, and heavy fighting continuing in the outskirts after the assault. The Taliban attacked a series of positions on the main road north of Pul-e-Khumri which links the city with the restive Baghlan-e-Markazi district.
As can be expected, pro-government media claimed that the attack was repelled and the situation returned to normal, a claim which was disputed by the Taliban on social media. In contradiction to the government claims, fighting continues to be reported in the northern outskirts of the city days after the attack.
Both attacks took place after a significant increase in incidents across the northern provinces, with both attacks being staged from rural areas surrounding the population centres. Whilst neither attack succeeded in capturing and holding a major population centre, they do serve to highlight the precarious hold the ANSF has outside of Kabul.
Furthermore, the noticeable increase in incidents recorded in the north before the attacks took place suggest a sound level of operational level coordination between the various Taliban commanders operating in the area.
West Afghanistan saw infighting between rival Taliban factions in the Shindand district of Herat Province. The fighting took place between a Taliban splinter faction commander, identified as Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, who is a deputy of the splinter faction leader Mullah Rasool. The fighting took place in late August, shortly after an IED detonated in a mosque in Quetta where family members of the Taliban Emir were present.
It's not clear if the fighting in Shindand and the Quetta attack are in any way linked. Mullah Rasool broke away from the main faction of the Taliban after the death of Mullah Omar due to a dispute over his secession. Since his break, infrequent fighting has been reported between Rasool’s fighters and other Taliban militants in the west of the country.
Farah Province remains highly unstable, the Bala Bulok district to the east of Farah City and the outskirts of Farah City itself see frequent clashes. According to data compiled by the Long War Journal , a number of Farah’s districts are under direct Taliban control (Khak-e-Safed, Bala Bulok, Shibkoh and Gulistan). The small reach of government influence in the province can be seen by the way in which Taliban attacks frequently take place close to Farah City itself, which was attacked by the Taliban in May 2018.
The west of the country remains an important region, not only from a national security perspective but also in terms of development. The south and west of the country were expected to host the TAPI Pipeline project which would run from the Turkmen border through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. The prevailing insecurity in the districts which the pipeline plans to traverse, and the high levels of Taliban control along the pipeline’s route pose obvious problems to the project.
South Afghanistan has historically been a volatile region, with ANSF presence in the rural areas being heavily contested by the Taliban. Much of the fighting recorded in August took place around the outskirts of Lashkar Gah City and on the road between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar City in the Maiwand district. Two incidents reported in Lashkar Gah City itself (A VBIED attack and an IED attack) suggest that Taliban infiltration into the city from the outskirts is common.
Oruzgan province has this month seen fighting in the area surrounding Tirin Kot, the provincial capital, where Afghan special forces are highly active. Reliable details regarding the fighting are rarely released by the Afghan MoD, but airstrikes are frequently reported during the clashes. In addition, multiple airstrikes have targeted Taliban militants in the Shahid-e-Hass and Charchino areas in a remote region to the west of the Provincial capital.
The south of Afghanistan remains a bastion of Taliban strength, with the group controlling or contesting the majority of districts throughout the southern provinces. In this period, the fighting was largely limited to skirmishes at ANSF positions, with no major assaults on major population centres like those seen in the north of the country.
August saw an increased number of suicide and IED attacks in Kabul, with three suicide bombings reported and four significant IED related incidents.
(Note: A fifth potential IED-related incident was recorded near to Jahan University in the west of the city, but the cause of the blast was not confirmed.)
The first suicide attack occurred on the 7th August and took place outside of a police station in the Mirwise Maidan area of the city. Approximately 100 people (mostly civilians) were killed or wounded in the attack, which was later claimed by the Taliban.
The second attack took place on the 17th August at a wedding hall in the 6th police district. The attack targeted an ethnic Hazara wedding and killed approximately 60 people. The attack was later claimed by IS-KP, who have frequently singled out Shia Hazaras for attacks. The third suicide attack occurred on 2nd Street in Taimani, wounding four civilians, no group claimed responsibility.
Suicide attacks and IEDs are not uncommon in Kabul, however, the volume of attacks reported in August represents an increase compared to other months in 2019. Of particular concern is IS-KPs continued strategy to pursue sectarian style conflict by targeting Shia Hazaras.
Conflict in Afghanistan has typically not been driven by sectarian concerns, and the stoking of sectarian conflict would add an additional layer of conflict to an already complex security situation in Afghanistan. Despite IS-KP controlling a relatively small amount of territory when compared to the Taliban, the group continues to be able to carry out lethal attacks in the city via their network of cells.
Lastly, as the peace talks continue between the Taliban and the US, it's becoming increasingly likely that the Taliban are attempting to inflict casualties on the ground within the ranks of ANSF personnel in order to gain leverage during the talks.
The increased intensity of the Taliban attacks have come in the form of assaults on population centres as outlined in this analysis as well as an sharp increase in the use of suicide bombings in Kabul itself. This trend is expected to continue, as Taliban
So far the trend has continued, as expected, in the first week of September 2019 as the Taliban attacks inflict heavy casualties on both civilians and military personnel.
On the 2nd September, an explosion was reported in the Green Village in eastern Kabul caused by a SVBIED. A group of gunmen allegedly entered the compound, which houses aid agencies and international organisations, following the initial explosion. It's reported that they were killed during a firefight with security forces. A secondary explosion was also reported at a nearby gas station. The attack killed at least 16 and wounded more than 100, with reports claiming a Romanian diplomat was also amongst the dead.
This was the Taliban's second major attack on the capital since the beginning of the month. On the 5th September, a Taliban car-bomb killed 10 and injured dozens more in an attack near the US Embassy in the capital. One victim is reported to be a US soldier.
Intelligence Fusion will continue to monitor the security situation across the region as it develops. For additional context, real-time alerting or a full analysis of what's happening in Afghanistan, speak to a member of the team about your tailored intelligence solution.