Afghanistan Terrorism Round Up
The Build Up
In April 2017, the Afghan Taliban announced ‘Op Mansouri’, a summer offensive which has rapidly continued into the winter as seen by recent events. ‘Op Mansouri’ was undertaken with the aim of expanding Taliban control in provinces where they had a large footprint and also to gain control of provincial capitals. To counter, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had announced ‘Op Khalid’ with the aim of preventing the Taliban capturing any of the major provincial capitals. It also aimed at liberating large number of pockets under Taliban control and regaining control of critical areas seized by the Taliban for short periods of time. The subsidiary objectives were destroying poppy cultivation, controlling surface routes of communication and giving cover to development projects. The US Forces for Afghanistan (USFOR-A) had simultaneously aimed at developing a sustainable security strategy with Afghans based on the key tenets of ‘fight, hold and disrupt’ i.e. identifying areas the ANSF would hold, areas they would fight to retain and areas they would conduct an economy of force effort to disrupt the Taliban.
During the year the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) built up its strength (with Russia claiming IS-K had reached cadre strength of 10000 in Afghanistan)[i] and also colluded with some Taliban leaders in the northern areas of Afghanistan eventually bringing some of them over to their side.The Al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) largely remained dormant, likely building up its effective strength.
The year gone by also saw an increase in sanctioned US troops in Afghanistan by 3000 odd and the US taking a hard stance against Pakistan forits support to Afghan terrorist groups and provision of safe havens for them in Pakistan. How these actions will affect the situation in future remains to be seen, but on the immediate front it only seems to escalate the terror mechanism based on the terror attacks in the last few months.
From April 2017 to Jan 2018, the Taliban have been relentless and have carried out their operations as planned using both direct and indirect attack methods. They have directly attacked weaker ANSF and police posts while employing IEDs and suicide bombers in other locations to cause maximum casualties. The direct attacks have mostly been in provinces of Kunduz, Badakhstan, Baghlan, Faryab, Sar-e-Pol, Ghor, Herat, Farah, Uruzgan, Helmand, Ghazni, Nuristan, Sar-e-Polwith Kandahar and Paktia receiving the deadliest attacks. Kandahar had 43 Afghan soldiers killed and nine wounded[ii] while Paktia had 41 police personnel killed and 158 wounded[iii] in Oct 2017. Faryab Province was mostly over run and Farah province also suffered immensely. Kunduz, Helmand, Kandahar and Ghazni were reclaimed by the ANSF successfully. A Taliban ‘Special Forces Unit’ known as ‘Sara Kheta’ or Red Unit/Team also gained attention for some of these spectacular and deadly attacks on the Afghan Security Forces[iv].
In addition a number of IED & suicide attacks were attempted both on military and civilian targets with the bulk being in the South and in Kabul. The major ones included a suicide attack on HQ 209 Corps in Mazar-e-Sharif (140 dead and over 100 wounded) in Apr 2017[v], truck bomb near the German Embassy in Kabul (150 dead and 413 wounded) in May 2017[vi],Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Jan 20, 2018[vii] (22 dead and 10 wounded) and the most recent one on Jan 27, 2018 by detonating an ambulance near the old Interior Ministry building, a hospital and diplomatic buildings[viii] (103 dead and 235 wounded).
Taliban has also most probably established a tactical base of Quetta Shura in Musa Qala, Helm and with a sizeable detachment of Taliban leaders based there[ix]. In addition there were reports of Deputy Chief of IS-K, Abdulrazaq Mehdi joining the ranks of the Taliban[x].
The IS-K have slowly expanded its presence to at least five provincesfrom Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan in the East to Jawjian in the North and Ghor in the West. It’s main attacks have been on the Shiite community. It modus operandi has comprised mainly of suicide attacks concentrating on the Capital City of Kabul with one incident in Herat and two in Nangarhar Province. There were varied targets like funeral procession where CEO Abdullah Abdullah attended (Jun 2017), Iraqi Embassy (Jul 2017), Shiite mosques (Herat in Aug 2017 & Kabul in Oct 2017), Sunni Mosque in Ghor (Oct 2017), TV Station in Kabul (Nov 2017), political meeting in a wedding hall in Kabul (Nov 2017). NDS Training Centre in Kabul (Dec 2017), Shia Cultural Centre in Kabul(Dec 2017), funeral procession of former governor in Nangarhar Province (Dec 2017), ‘Save the Children’ Office in Nangarhar Province killing 103 civilians and wounding 235 more[xi] (Jan 24, 2018) and the latest one on a Military Academy in Kabul killing 11 soldiers and wounding 16 more[xii] (Jan 29, 2018).
There were two reports of IS-K direct attacks during this period. One was in Sayyad District, Sar-e-Pol Province where IS-K and Taliban jointly attacked a village killing 50 civilians[xiii](thereafter the Taliban leader pledged alliance with IS-K) and the second one was of clashes with Taliban forces to take control of area in Khogyani District, Nangarhar Province due to which 200 civilian families fled the area[xiv].
Kabul remained the favourite hunting ground for both Taliban and the IS-K with no less than 22 attacks taking place from May 2017 to Jan 2018 (12 by IS-K and 10 by Taliban) including rocket attacks by Taliban on Kabul International Airport targeting the plane of US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis[xv]. This also underscores the weakness of the ANSF, US and NATO forces as well as questions the intelligence apparatus specially of the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan. The ease with which both the groups are able to carry out their attacks even bypassing security checkpoints with explosives laden vehicles demands a complete reality check for the security forces.
ANSF and USFOR-A Operations
The ANSF primarily carried out counter-Taliban operations in Kunduz, Badakhstan, Sar-e-Pol,Helmand, Kandahar and GhazniProvinces recapturing the key areas. In addition, they most probably carried out an explosive attack in Khanabad District, Kunduz Province on a gathering of Taliban leaders killing ten of them including six leaders.
The USFOR-A on the other hand concentrated on drone strikes mainly in the Eastern Part of Afghanistan after the famous GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb attack in Achin District, Nangarhar province[xvi]in Apr 2017 reportedly killing 90 IS-K terrorists. Primary areas for the drone strikes in the earlier part of this period were Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces killing two IS-K Emirs and numerous other terrorists. One strike in Helmand Province in Jul 2017 ended up mistakenly killing 12 Afghan Police officers. Thereafter, the coordination likely got better between ANSF, Police and the US allowing for strikes to be carried out else where and also the new strategy in August 2017 gave new authority for striking areas[xvii]. Strikes were then carried out in Chardara District, Kunduz Province in Nov 2017 (30 Taliban killed), Ghazni Province in Dec 2017 (strikes in coordination with ground operations of ANSF resulted in 60 terrorists killed including Second in Command of AQIS) and Helmand Province in Dec 2017 (‘Red Unit’ Taliban leader killed [xviii] and 25 drug processing labs destroyed worth approximately $ 80 Mn of drug money[xix]).
The Taliban and IS-K seem to have been able to push forward on their plans and the ANSF has just about managed to hold on to the important Provincial Capitals. It has, however, not been able to stop the bleeding by Taliban especially in Kabul, neither has the US attacks on IS-K made any material difference to their attacking prowess.
Though the US claimed in the Semi-Annual report to the Congress (on Dec 15, 2017) that for the period from June 01, 2017 to Nov 30, 2017 the fighting season has been more successful than the last[xx] it would be pragmatic to say that the balance is still tilted in the favour of the terrorist groups and that seems ominous with the elections approaching in Jul 2018. Hopefully, rest of 2018 holds a promise of better results for the Afghan Forces.
(All figures and data compiled till 30 Jan 2018)
[i]https://www.voanews.com/a/russia-afghanistan-islamic-state/4176497.html accessed on Dec 27, 2017.
[iii]http://www.1tvnews.af/en/news/afghanistan/31707-attack-kills-41-injures-158-in-afghanistans-paktia accessed on Oct 20, 2017.
[iv]https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-special-forces-emerge-deadly-attacks/28896629.html accessed on Dec 06, 2017.
[vi]https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/31/asia/kabul-explosion-hits-diplomatic-area/index.html accessed on Jun 01, 2017 and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-blast/shock-gives-way-to-despair-in-kabul-after-ambulance-bomb-idUSKBN1FG086 accessed on Jan 28, 2018.
[ix]https://www.security-risks.com/security-trends-south-asia/afghanistan/osint-report-%EF%BF%BD%EF%BF%BD-taliban-establish-tactical-base-of-quetta-shura-in-musa-qala-helmand-8664.htl maccessed on Oct 10, 2017.
[x]https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-taliban-says-islamic-state-deputy-leader-has-/4144740.html accessed on Dec 01, 2017.
[xiv]https://www.voanews.com/a/afghanistan-nangarhar-province-taliban-islamic-state-clashes/4137455.html accessed on Nov 26, 2017.
[xv]https://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/26/politics/mattis-afghanistan/index.html accessed on Sep 28, 2017.
[xvi]https://www.thequint.com/news/world/us-drops-gbu-43b-massive-ordnance-air-blast-in-afghanistan accessed on Apr 15, 2017.
[xx]https://www.rferl.org/a/us-afghanistan-taliban-nato-ghani-andsf/28922618.html accessed on Dec 18, 2017.