Afghanistan braces for new Taliban offensive

A recent statement gives an insight into the militant group's strategy this year

Afghanistan braces for new Taliban offensive
Taliban’s annual Spring Offensive has begun heralding more bloodshed and violence in Afghanistan, potentially complicating efforts for peace and reconciliation in the war ravaged.

Announcing the 15th such offensive – dubbed Operation Omari, in the memory of their founder Mullah Omar, whose death became public last year – the Taliban said in a statement sent to media: “The Islamic Emirate’s leadership eagerly announces this year’s Jihadi Operation … (and) will employ all means at our disposal to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition that lowers the morale of the foreign invaders and their internal armed militias.”

The start of this year’s fighting was preceded by bombings and clashes in various parts of Afghanistan. Days before the announcement, the Taliban bombed a bus of military recruits bound for Kabul, killing 12. In Badakhshan’s Jurm district, clashes left some 20 soldiers dead.

There wasn’t too much of a lull in winter, when fighting traditionally recedes because of harsh weather.

This year, many predict the offensive in spring will be much worse than last year, when Afghanistan witnessed some of the most brutal violence since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. More than 11,000 civilian and 20,000 military casualties, both dead and injured, were recorded last year. Additionally, Taliban made more territorial gains last year than any previous year since the war began.

Top US commander in Afghanistan Gen John Campbell had warned in a Congressional testimony that the fighting this year could be “no better and possibly worse than 2015”.

As the militants begin their new offensive, there are fears that Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand province, could fall to Taliban.
Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, may fall to Taliban

The Taliban announcement seems, to some extent, notional, since fighting now continues virtually the year round. But it is important because it unveils the strategies that the militants intend to pursue this year. Going by similar pronouncements the previous year, we can say they fairly stick to the plan.

This year’s statement contains four elements – the military strategy, the plan for addressing concerns within the group about divisions, an approach for correcting public perceptions, and a policy on dialogue with the government.

The Taliban have announced to carry out “largescale attacks” on Afghan security forces across the country, suicide attacks, and “assassinations” of government officials and military commanders in urban centers, in the coming weeks and months.

The other important element is the so-called hearts-and-minds approach, to win the support of ordinary Afghans for the insurgency. Blamed by the United Nations for being responsible for 62% of the civilian casualties last year, the Taliban say they have given unequivocal instructions to their commanders “to protect civilians and civil infrastructure.” Additionally, the militants vowed to introduce “mechanisms for good governance” in the areas they control. According to some estimates, the Taliban hold about 6% of the Afghan territory.

Internally, Mullah Mansour Akhtar – who succeeded Mullah Omar last year – has consolidated his control on the group by winning over most of the key figures who had initially challenged him. Mullah Zakir, the former head of the Taliban’s powerful military commission, has sworn allegiance to him, while Mullah Omar’s eldest son Mullah Yaqoob, and brother Mullah Abdul Manan, have been accommodated in the Taliban hierarchy. Mansour used the announcement to underscore this support, by firstly naming the operation after the founder Mullah Omar, but more importantly through the assertion that the Operation “was initiated and planned by the Islamic Emirate’s leadership, the leaders of the Military Commission as well as the Emirate’s military planners.” Mullah Mansour is implying the involvement of Mullah Omar’s son, who is now an important commander of the military commission after being given the charge of Taliban operations in 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

But more importantly, the statement hints at the beginning of a political dialogue with the government, although it has been phrased to suggest that the purpose of the exercise would be to persuade elements in the government to give up their opposition to the Taliban.

“Simultaneously with the operation, the scholars, elders and leaders of the Islamic Emirate will open a dialogue with our countrymen in the enemy ranks to give up their opposition to the establishment of an Islamic government and join the ranks of the Mujahedeen.”

Taliban had rejected a call by the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) in February to join the peace dialogue, on the pretext that operations by Afghan forces had increased, US troops had been deployed to the battlefields and were participating in air strikes, and night raids had continued. The group had then reiterated its demands for entering peace negotiations, which included the withdrawal of foreign forces, an end to travel and financial restrictions on its leadership, and freeing of its fighters held by the government.

It is believed that the Taliban would try to intensify their activities in the near future to enhance their bargaining power during future negotiations with the Afghan government. Seemingly, their calculation is that the bloodier their spring campaign, the better their position to secure a deal with Kabul.

But crucial for such a deal will be the state of Pak-Afghan relations.

Increased violence would worsen ties between the two neighbors. The goodwill between Kabul and Islamabad generated earlier this year through the efforts of the United States has already been lost after Pakistan’s failure to act against Taliban bases on its soil following their refusal to attend peace talks that the QCG had planned for the first week of March.

Afghan Intelligence chief Massoud Andarabi recently alleged while talking to lawmakers in Kabul that the ISI “is completely supporting” the Taliban and “encouraging them to continue the Afghan war and capture territory.” A similar impression was given by Masoom Stanikzai, who said in a media interview: “There are many fighters coming from across the border with Pakistan. There is no doubt about that.”

Pakistani officials deny these allegations and insist that their influence on Taliban has its limitations.

Such impressions would, however, not be helpful in finding a political solution to the problem.

“The main hurdle to peace, the biggest obstacle to peace, is Afghan-Pakistan relationship,” the Afghan envoy in Islamabad Omer Zakhilwal had said at Jinnah Institute last week.

In a TV interview, Zakhilwal said Afghanistan could no longer be satisfied by verbal assurances, and Pakistan would need to take practical steps to address his country’s concerns.

The four-nation process started by Pakistan, Afghanistan, US and China – known as the Quadrilateral Coordination Group for reconciliation in Afghanistan – has also come under stress because of the widening gulf of mistrust between Kabul and Islamabad, and there are problems in holding its next meeting.

The High Peace Council (HPC), the top Afghan body for reconciliation, however remains hopeful that the QCG will bring the Taliban to the negotiation table.

“We should not lose hope. We hope that the peace talks will yield results and the Taliban will come to the negotiation tables,” said HPC official Ismail Qasimyar.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad


Twitter: @bokhari_mr