Afghanistan Fighting Season: Assessing the Taliban’s al-Khadaq Spring Offensive
In late April 2018, the Taliban announced the start of their Spring offensive, titled ‘al-Khandaq.’ Historically, the contrast in fighting during and before the fighting season has been quite significant, however in more recent years the Taliban have been able to maintain pressure on security forces throughout the year. In line with this, heavy fighting and insecurity was already prevalent across much of rural Afghanistan before the Taliban even announced their offensive. The announcement of the al-Khandaq offensive also provides a major publicity appeal on behalf of the Taliban and provides the group with a way of highlighting their capabilities, and ability to threaten the Afghan Government.
The image below shows the spread of incidents in Afghanistan in the 2 weeks leading up to the official announcement of the Taliban offensive on the 25th April, note skirmish-type incidents (yellow markers) are frequent across the country, particularly in the east of the country. In the North, where the Taliban made many of their initial gains after the announcement, skirmishes occur frequently, showing that Taliban pressure in the area pre-existed the actual offensive. A noticeable change since the start of the offensive is the significant increase in attacks on voter registration centres, although these attacks have been carried out by both the Taliban and Islamic State – Khorosan Province.
Since the start of the offensive, the actual volume of incidents reported has changed very little, however the nature of the incidents highlights the increased insecurity. For example, the Taliban attacks since the start of the offensive have been bolder, such as the Taliban’s attack on Farah city in mid May, which over ran areas of the urban centre. The attacks do not appear to be coordinated on a national level, but an element of coordination at a provincial level seems to be present, particularly during simultaneous attacks across Ghazni Province. In order to analyse the pace of the fighting, incidents will be analysed at a provincial level in a selection of provinces which have been particularly unstable.
In the opening week of the offensive, the Taliban attacked the Nahrin district, Khenjan District and the Baghlan-e Markazi district as well attacks as around Pul-e-Khumri City. The casualty figures in the attacks were as always unclear, with both sides producing somewhat embellished figures of their own. In general, the balance of power appears to have changed little, although reports emerged that the Taliban were able to capture positions in the Hussain Khel area.
In the second week of the offensive, the Taliban staged a significant attack on the Tala Wa Barfak district, which started on the 8th May. The ANSF took heavy casualties during the fighting and Taliban militants released images of Humvees and weapons being taken away from ANSF Positions.
The Taliban attacks in the province were not staged out of nowhere, as the Taliban have a significant level of control in the district. Statistics released by SIGAR state that the Khenjan, Pul-e-Khumri, Markazi and Nahrin districts are contested, highlighting the strength of the group in this region.
Immediately after the announcement of the al-Khandaq offensive, the security situation in Faryab did not make a significant change. Before the offensive, Government presence in the Province has been low, and the Taliban boast have been able to boast a significant number of fighters in the area.
Towards the end of the first week of al-Khandaq, skirmishes began to be reported in the Dowlatabad, Shirin Tagab and Almar districts towards the end of the opening week. The trend among the reports is that many of the skirmishes involved Taliban militants attacking ANSF positions, suggesting that the Taliban hold the initiative. For example, In Almar, the ANSF took casualties after the Taliban attacked their position in the Chaghatak village on the 25th April. In the Dowlatabad district, the ANSF took further casualties during a Taliban attack in the Baloch village on the 2nd May.
The second week of al-Khandaq showed an increase in attacks on the ANSF in Faryab, particularly in the Almar and Bilcharagh districts. In the Bilcheragh district, the Taliban were able to capture the Gulian area after heavy fighting. Images claiming to show captured police pick-up trucks were disseminated across social media shortly after the fighting. Security forces claimed to have retaken the area, but it is likely that ANSF presence is limited, as it was before the fighting. Up until the day this article was written, the fighting in the province has largely followed these lines, with Almar and Dowlatabad seeing the bulk of the fighting.
Farah Province has seen the most significant military development by the Taliban since the start of their al-Khandaq offensive due to their bold attack on Farah City. The Taliban were not able to capture the entire urban centre, but they were able to control a large proportion of the city for a prolonged period of time. The attack also proved that despite Taliban control being largely restricted to rural areas, this control can be leveraged to suffocate and apply pressure to urban centres.
The fighting for the city, which began on the 15th May, was not necessarily a surprise attack (although its scale took the isolated Afghan forces in the area off guard.) The Taliban had been particularly active in the Bala Bulok district to the east of the city in the months leading up to the attack on the city. Despite security forces being able to recapture much of what was lost in the initial assault on Farah City, the attack represented a major victory in the realms of propaganda and perception for the Taliban. The attack came at a time when multiple articles were quoting US military personnel as dismissing the power of the Taliban, and highlighting the way in which they do not control urban areas.
Other Security Threats
Whilst the Taliban represent the most significant security threat in Afghanistan, both before and after the announcement of al-Khandaq, the Islamic State – Khorosan Province has also proven to be particularly persistent. Since the arrival of IS-KP, the group has been able to hold on to much of its territory in Nangarhar and Kunar in the East and Jowzjan in the north.
In Nangarhar, IS-KP have been repeatedly targeted by US drone strikes in the Achin, Khogyani, Chaparhar and Deh Bala districts, where IS-KP control is significant. In Kunar, IS continues to hold on to territory in the Chapadara and Manogi districts despite frequent drone strikes. Since the start of the al-Khandaq offensive, IS-KP has maintained the same pace of operations as before the Taliban offensive. IS-KP activity has also been slightly restricted by frequent clashes with Pakistani Lashkar-e Islam fighters, mostly in the Nazyan district of Nangarhar.
The threat posed by IS-KP is somewhat different to that posed by the Taliban, as despite the relative lack in geographical control; IS-KP attacks in Kabul and Jalalabad have been particularly lethal, often resulting in high civilian casualties. IS-KP has maintained a constant stream of attacks on Kabul, with the most recent being the attack on a police HQ in the 13th police district of the city on the 9th May. Whilst Taliban attacks in the capital nearly always cause civilian casualties, IS-KP attacks generally appear to cause more.
In the north, IS-KP has proven to be resilient after the death of their leader Qari Hekmat in a US drone strike. The IS enclave in the Darzan and Qush Tepa districts has been at the receiving end of additional attacks in the last 2 months, but the tactical situation has changed very little. ANSF presence continues to be minimal (largely restricted to the district centres) and IS-KP continues to control the 2 districts.
Potential Future Targets of the al-Khandaq Offensive
Whilst it is not possible to say for sure where the Taliban will concentrate their efforts as part of the al-Khandaq offensive, trends can be observed in the data recorded by intelligence fusion in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s assault of Farah city was preceded by months of heavy fighting and frequent calls for reinforcements from beleaguered ANSF positions in the area. Farah City is not the only urban centre to have witnessed similar insecurity.
Almost immediately after the fighting died down in Farah City, reports emerged regarding Taliban attacks in the Andar district of Ghazni Province. Shortly after attacking Andar, the Taliban then began attacking ANSF positions elsewhere in the province whilst simultaneously maintaining pressure in the Andar district. On the 21st May, 7 police officers were killed when Taliban militants attacked their position in the Jaghatu district, local media did not report whether the position was over run. The Arjistan and Deh Yak districts have also seen similar incidents, which all serve to highlight a concerning, level of Taliban strength. Much like in the months leading up to the Taliban attack on Farah City, the clashes have moved closer and closer to the city. Unconfirmed reports claimed that government officials and ANSF commanders left Ghazni city, in preparation for what many believe is the inevitable upcoming attack.
The Taliban’s offensive has been accompanied by a parallel war of words which has taken place in both local and international media. US military spokespersons have typically underplayed recent reports which highlighted the percentage of Taliban control in the country by arguing that the majority of Taliban owned areas are isolated rural areas. The Taliban’s ability to not only apply pressure, but to also stage conventional attacks on urban centres in different areas of the county goes some way to undermine this aspect of the USA’s rhetoric. The Taliban’s own rhetoric has also been lacking in terms of accuracy and reliability, as the Taliban have generally attempted to spread disinformation regarding casualty figures among ANSF and foreign personnel. Whilst there can be no doubt that the Taliban are conducting the al-Khandaq offensive from a position of respectable military strength, it is also important not to underestimate the way in which US air assets can severely hinder attacks that require large concentrations of Taliban militants. Shortly after the attack on Farah City, the US military released video footage showing drone strikes targeting Taliban militants in the open, highlighting the ever present threat of US air assets.
It is possible that the Taliban may be able to temporarily capture an urban centre in the course of the Spring offensive, however foreign forces and the Afghan Government are evidently determined to prevent this from happening. Many of the strategic gains are likely to take place in the rural areas of the country which are already under significant pressure, leading to a slow degradation of governmental control.