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The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan
The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan
Survivors walk after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan 13 March 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Commentary / Asia

The Cost of Escalating Violence in Afghanistan

Taliban attacks in Kabul in late January 2017 are part of an escalation in violence in Afghanistan, where the civilian population is bearing the brunt of a particularly intense winter of fighting.

Over one week, as many as 130 people, the overwhelming majority civilians, were killed in twin attacks claimed by the Taliban in Kabul. On 20 January, five Taliban suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel, killing at least 22 people, mostly foreigners, after breaching the security of the heavily guarded building. Almost half the dead were employees of Afghan airline carrier, Kam Air. Families and friends of civilians trapped in the fourteen-hour siege spent the night in the sub-zero temperature outside the hotel waiting for news of their loved ones.

A week later the Taliban launched a deadlier attack, killing over 100 people, again mostly civilians. This attack, near an old interior ministry building, was carried out using an ambulance. Despite their reluctance to accept responsibility for such attacks in the past, the Taliban this time were quick to claim the attack, but denied civilians were killed. An International Committee of the Red Cross statement condemned the attack as “senseless”, noting that ambulances should be used “for saving lives, not destroying them”.

A third suicide attack, this one claimed by the Islamic State’s local branch, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP) hit a military academy of the Afghan army on 29 January.

The attacks have provoked widespread fury at the Taliban, prompting some Afghan political leaders and activists to press the government to crush the insurgency instead of pursuing peace talks. Some have even called for the execution of Taliban prisoners; government officials said they were considering the option. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani described the 27 January attack as “our 9/11” and vowed to order massive operations against the Taliban. Similar anger was directed by Ghani, other politicians and the public at Pakistan, which hosts Taliban leaders and is widely perceived as a key external enabler of the insurgency.

The attacks have provoked widespread fury at the Taliban [and] have added to Afghans’ mounting frustration with their government.

The attacks have added to Afghans’ mounting frustration with their government. Many view the government as bogged down in micromanagement and too distracted by a power struggle against potential rivals ahead of the 2019 presidential elections to adequately protect against insurgent attacks.

The attacks not only provoked rage among Afghans, but attracted sharp condemnation from abroad. On 29 January, U.S. President Donald Trump said: “They’re killing people left and right”. He appeared to rule out engaging insurgent leaders: “We don’t want to talk to the Taliban. We’re going to finish what we have to finish, what nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it”.

The day after President Trump’s statement, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, visiting Kabul, appeared to walk it back, saying it was meant to highlight the depravity of the Taliban’s recent attacks and did not reflect a policy shift. Talking to reporters, Sullivan argued that the U.S. overall still hopes to move toward peace talks.

Despite Sullivan’s recalibration, Trump’s words matter in Afghanistan and the region. His rhetoric should be seen in the light of a new U.S. strategy in Afghanistan that thus far has mostly involved committing further U.S. forces and an escalating military operation against the Taliban. U.S. signals on engaging the Taliban – or at least on encouraging the movement’s leaders to enter talks with the Afghan government – have been mixed. In principle, and notwithstanding President Trump’s 29 January remarks, top U.S. officials say the new approach includes both military and diplomatic efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet U.S. diplomacy has clearly taken a back seat to military operations. U.S. contacts with insurgent leaders, which were ongoing, albeit limited, in the latter years of the Obama administration, appear to have petered out.

A Wider Escalation

The recent Taliban strikes take place amid a wider escalation of the war. The uptick in attacks is not the first such increase over the past few years. Nonetheless, Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter – winters usually see a lull in fighting – since 2001.

This comes alongside U.S. public messaging that its military posture against the Taliban will be increasingly aggressive, winter will offer no respite and spring will bring ever fiercer operations. Indeed, the Afghan security forces and U.S. military are already conducting record numbers of airstrikes and raids against the Taliban. Their stated intention is to gain the upper hand before the fighting season starts, undermine the insurgency and convince its leaders they cannot win militarily.

The U.S. military has stepped up airstrikes, raids and operations by U.S. Special Forces.

Throughout December and January, airstrikes and ground raids appear to have affected the Taliban’s battlefield mobility across the country and have inflicted losses on the insurgency at a level unprecedented for a winter season. Facing increasing battlefield pressure, the Taliban seem to be shifting toward tactics that pressure the Afghan government, its security forces and the U.S. while reducing insurgents’ exposure. Recent Taliban statements warn of an increase in suicide strikes and attacks by insurgents that have infiltrated security forces or related security partners. Taliban sources also threaten further massive attacks against Afghan and U.S. troops. The lethality of the attacks has increased, in part thanks to sophisticated modern equipment such as sniper rifles, laser sights and night-vision goggles.

Suicide attacks have long been part of the movement’s urban warfare. As military operations against the Taliban escalated over 2017 – even before the new U.S. strategy was formally announced – so too did suicide attacks. Last year saw a 50 per cent increase in the number of such attacks compared to 2016: 48 versus 32, according to the Taliban’s own records (this may exclude attacks it did not claim). As the movement faces further pressure this year, the pace of spectacular attacks and urban warfare may well continue as pressure on the battlefield is unlikely to radically undermine insurgents’ ability to stage them. The same week Kabul suffered the two Taliban attacks described above, the provincial capitals of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south were also struck by suicide bombers.

The Kabul attacks suggest the Taliban is sending signals of its own: that the U.S. cannot fight its way to peace. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the movement “has a clear message for Trump and his hand kissers that if you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response”. By turning Kabul into a battlefield, insurgents gain wider attention, shake public confidence in the government, while showing their continued ability to strike hard.

The U.S. military has stepped up airstrikes, raids and operations by U.S. Special Forces. In December 2017, U.S. and Afghan forces conducted 455 airstrikes, compared with just 65 in December 2016. Even in the same month in 2012, when nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were present in Afghanistan, barely 200 strikes took place. All told, 2,000 airstrikes were carried out between August and December of last year, nearly as many as in all of 2015 and 2016 combined.

The increased battlefield tempo might have hurt the Taliban. But it does not yet appear to have translated into increased territorial control for Afghan forces, which the U.S. military has defined as a key metric for measuring progress (U.S. Defense Department officials reported in late January, with data from October 2017, that more territory had slipped from government to Taliban control).

Increasing Civilian Suffering

The escalation clearly has not improved security for the population – another critical metric for any campaign’s success, though not one referred to by the U.S. administration. The U.S. Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in its quarterly report in late January that the number of civilian casualties (4,474) from 1 June to 27 November 2017 increased by 13 per cent compared to the same period during the previous year. Civilian casualties due to airstrikes have increased too. According to UNAMA, civilian casualties by airstrikes increased 52 per cent in first nine months of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. The toll from airstrikes is mostly borne by rural populations, whose suffering receives considerably less attention than that of those affected by the Taliban’s strikes in Kabul. Indeed, a striking feature of the Taliban’s own propaganda is what they charge as the double standard in reporting by Western and Afghan media.

Nor is it clear that a military build-up, despite its tragic costs, will necessarily make insurgent leaders more willing to talk. In fact, the opposite may be true: it risks empowering elements within the movement more resistant to reconciliation.

The [Taliban] leaders [who have signalled interest in peace talks] may not always be in sync with the mood on the battlefield.

The Taliban faces its own internal struggle. Those on the political-civil front, including parts of the leadership and representatives in the Doha political office, appear to have already accepted in recent years that they are unlikely to win the war militarily and have quietly signalled interest in peace talks. These leaders may not always be in sync with the mood on the battlefield. Although command and control within the movement is still fairly coherent, leaders outside the country find it increasingly hard to shape the daily decisions of their on-the-ground commanders, who in any case enjoy considerable autonomy and whose units are suffering high casualties. This could mean a gradual erosion of influence among insurgents who are more inclined toward talking and more power for harder line fighters on the ground.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg reacted to the Taliban’s Kabul attacks by vowing that the alliance will continue and increase support to the Afghan forces. But he highlighted too the need to ramp up diplomatic efforts: “It is essential to redouble efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation”, he said. Notwithstanding the many difficulties peace talks would pose, he and the U.S.’s other allies should press Washington to do exactly that: keep channels of communication to insurgent leaders open and at least lay the ground for peace talks by continuing to test with Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional powers what a settlement might look like.

Absent that, U.S. strategy risks further increasing the intensity of violence across the country, with no foreseeable end in sight. Civilians on rural front lines will bear the brunt of much of the fighting, but those in the capital and other towns will suffer too if the Taliban continues to perpetrate horrific attacks like those last week.

Commentary / Asia

A Dangerous Escalation in Afghanistan

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is likely to continue unabated in 2018, despite the U.S. effort to step up its military campaign. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to utilise its influence with Afghan political actors to help rebuild trust and increase prospects for mediation.

This commentary on the escalation of danger in Afghanistan is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

In 2018, Afghanistan is likely to witness escalating violence and could also face political crisis. President Ashraf’s National Unity Government (NUG) should work with U.S. officials to ensure Washington’s new strategy has a political, not merely military, component. It also should reach out to opposition politicians and parties, advance preparations for credible parliamentary elections and counter the perception that power is being centralised along ethnic lines – all measures the EU and its member states, which retain influence in Kabul, should encourage. With the U.S. for now determined to escalate its military campaign against the Taliban insurgency, prospects for progress toward a political settlement in 2018 appear dim. Still, beyond their contribution to the training, advising and assisting of Afghan security forces, the EU and European leaders and member states should continue to emphasise the importance of such a settlement and help preserve channels of communication to the insurgency.

A military strategy with no political framework

Washington’s new Afghanistan strategy involves stepping up the military campaign against the Taliban through U.S. airstrikes and mostly Afghan-led, U.S.-supported ground offensives. U.S. President Donald Trump removed deadlines for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, while increasing the number of troops on the ground by 4,000, to reach a total of 15,000 (still far below the 100,000 deployed as part of the 2011 surge). European NATO allies have committed to sending more military personnel to train and advise the Afghan security forces. Although the increase is modest – less than a thousand officers – it is a symbolically significant expression of support. U.S. officials maintain that the goal is to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and leave the group no choice but to enter into talks about a political settlement, although when such talks would take place is unclear. U.S. efforts to engage the Taliban – or at least encourage them to enter talks with the Afghan government – appear to have petered out.

Over the past year, the Taliban have stepped up their offensive, launching massive high-casualty attacks, sometimes by driving military vehicles – usually stolen from the Afghan army – laden with explosives into military and police compounds. These demoralising bombings are likely to continue. The Taliban also could continue their pattern of spectacular urban attacks to shake public confidence in the government; a 27 January attack, which saw insurgents detonate explosives packed in an ambulance on a busy Kabul street, killing more than 100 and injuring at least 200, mostly civilians, is only the latest such strike. For some years already, insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated equipment and, in some places, engaged Afghan forces in direct – as opposed to asymmetric – confrontation. The Taliban also appear to enjoy stronger connections than ever before to outside powers, not only their traditional patron (Pakistan), but also Iran and Russia. Afghan civilians are likely to bear the brunt of any escalation.

The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit.

Prospects in 2018 for serious progress toward a peace process are slim. U.S. officials say their new strategy integrates diplomatic and military efforts to achieve a political settlement with the Taliban. Yet diplomacy clearly has been downgraded. The U.S. undertook only a single observable political effort in 2017, which was to pressure Pakistan to stop harbouring and supporting the Taliban and their Haqqani network allies. Even that initiative is unlikely to bear fruit, however, as cuts to U.S. military assistance almost certainly will not alter the strategic calculus of Islamabad’s security establishment that drives Pakistani support for Afghan insurgents.

U.S. and Afghan officials pay increasing attention to what they describe as a growing threat from foreign terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP). In truth, however, non-Taliban groups contributed only a small percentage of the violence in 2017. Despite dramatic and shocking attacks in urban centres, the IS-KP has, for the most part, been held in check by U.S. and Afghan forces, on the one hand, and the Taliban, on the other.

Politics in crisis

National politics are likely to suck oxygen from counter-insurgency efforts as President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government may well face a political crisis in the coming year. Parliamentary elections, already postponed in October 2016 and now scheduled for July 2018, are at risk of further delay while presidential elections are scheduled for 2019. Delayed reforms and preparations risk undermining prospects for clean polling, according to Tadamichi Yamamoto, UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan. Insecurity across much of the country may also obstruct a credible vote.

The government faces a political opposition that is larger and more diverse than previously has been the case during the post-Taliban era. Afghan politics may be factious and fluid, but, at least for now, several groups have aligned against the Ghani government, in part because they see stalled election preparations as evidence it is looking to manipulate the vote. Many accuse the president of tightening his grip on power and deepening ethnic divisions.

Ghani’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who left for Turkey amid a criminal investigation into allegations (which he denies) that he abducted and raped a political rival, has formed an alliance with influential Tajik and Hazara leaders. A spat between Ghani and Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh province who is resisting the president’s efforts to remove him from his post, also threatens turmoil. Atta has the support of a major part of Jamiat-e Islami, one of the largest political parties. That he seems ready to defy the central government so brazenly, even violently, sets a dangerous precedent for regional power brokers seeking to slip Kabul’s grip.

Powerful politicians also are arrayed against the government. Ex-President Hamid Karzai has been mobilising to convene a Loya Jirga or grand council of tribal elders to debate the country’s future. While Karzai argues a council would unite the bitterly divided Afghan polity, his critics accuse him of trying to shake up politics and regain power.

President Ghani has tried to fend off his rivals and shore up his legitimacy with the backing of Western powers. But external support is an inadequate substitute for domestic approval, particularly with elections looming. Ghani needs to invest more in building national consensus, which will be critical to manage conflict and street protests should a political crisis unfold.

Making external influence more constructive

The EU and member states have difficult tasks ahead: they must simultaneously help keep the government from unravelling; support, along with the UN, election preparations; encourage President Ghani to reach out to his opponents; and assist the U.S.-led battle against the Taliban, all the while talking to the insurgents.

Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table.

In this respect, the EU continues to enjoy clout with various Afghan political actors, even if less than some years ago. Their reduced footprint in Afghanistan notwithstanding, the EU and member states provided €30.5 million in humanitarian assistance in 2017 to help the country’s growing numbers of displaced people and other civilian victims. More broadly, over the past decade the EU has provided some €756 million in life-saving aid. It should now use the resulting influence to push for progress toward a political settlement to the conflict. Specifically, it should press and encourage the Afghan and U.S. governments to go down this path, while ensuring that lines of communication to the insurgency remain open. If signs re-emerge that the Trump administration is planning to close the Taliban’s political representation office in Doha, Qatar – which it threatened to do in 2017 but then apparently reconsidered – European leaders should actively discourage such a move. Although EU influence in Kabul suffered when it closed its special representative’s office and downgraded its diplomatic presence last year, there may at some point be opportunities for Europeans to help bring the Taliban to the table. Indeed, mistrust between the Taliban and the Ghani government means credible third parties will, at some point, need to step in.