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Islamic State continued deadly attacks in capital Kabul, and hardships persisted amid electricity shortfall, severe winter and curtailed relief operations due to Taliban restrictions on NGOs.
Islamic State continued attacks, resistance group struck in Taliban heartland. Suicide bomber 1 Jan struck defence ministry convoy near military airport in Kabul, killing around 20 security personnel and civilians; Islamic State’s local branch (ISKP) later claimed attacker was one of two militants who had targeted Chinese hotel weeks earlier. ISKP claimed bombing at entrance to Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul 11 Jan that killed number of govt employees. Meanwhile, resistance group Afghanistan Freedom Front 18 Jan claimed attack in Kandahar province (south), continuing to illustrate group’s operational presence inside Taliban’s heartland.
Murder of former female parliamentarian fuelled concerns. Gunmen 15 Jan shot dead former female Afghan parliamentarian Mursal Nabizadeh at her home in Kabul, sparking concerns over safeguards for Afghan women, especially former politicians and women’s activists, under Taliban rule. Authorities subsequently announced that lawmaker was killed as result of family feud, as bodyguard and jewellery remained missing.
Electricity blackouts resulted in hundreds killed. Amid unusually cold winter, and despite electricity supply deals struck late Dec with Uzbekistan and 10 Jan with Tajikistan, country continued to face electricity outages that hampered private sector and contributed to heating problems for ordinary Afghans, leaving hundreds dead; authorities in Jan also cut off electricity to Kandahar and Helmand provinces, despite unprecedented cold weather, due to dwindling water levels of Kajaki dam. Authorities 5 Jan signed oil extraction deal with Chinese company to invest $540mn over three-year period, creating 3,000 jobs. UN 14 Jan resumed cash shipments after short hiatus. UN Deputy Sec-Gen Amina Mohammed led delegation to Afghanistan and 25 Jan reported efforts to obtain exemptions for women to resume working at NGOs, whose operations have been slowed by Taliban restrictions. World Food Programme 26 Jan said malnutrition rates countrywide are at record high.
Taliban banned women from universities and NGOs, prompting backlash and dramatic disruption of aid flows as civilians struggle to survive amid economic hardship and severe winter.
Taliban banned women from working for NGOs and attending universities. In dramatic decision, Taliban 24 Dec ordered “all national and international organisations to stop females working” immediately, next day exempted health workers. UN and some major NGOs paused some humanitarian assistance to signal disapproval, partially scaling back aid operations, which could have calamitous impact on one of the world's largest humanitarian response. Earlier, UN Under Sec-Gen for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths 20 Dec reported that amid sub-zero winter temperatures, 97% of Afghans live in poverty, two-thirds need humanitarian assistance to survive and half population require access to clean water; Griffiths also warned “third consecutive drought is looming”. Further deepening restrictions imposed on women since banning girls from public secondary schools in March 2022, Taliban 20 Dec forbade university education for women countrywide; ban removed any illusions that educational restrictions on girls and women could be temporary.
Insecurity persisted amid attacks by Islamic State. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) 2 Dec conducted two attacks in capital Kabul seemingly using foreign fighters from Central Asia, one targeting Pakistani ambassador and another attacking former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in his mosque; assaults indicated increasing capacity and will by IS-KP to attack high-profile targets. IS-KP foreign fighters 12 Dec targeted Chinese-owned hotel inside Kabul, wounding at least five individuals. Meanwhile, armed opposition group Afghanistan Freedom Front showed increasing operational capacity in Dec inside Kandahar province (south). UN sec-gen 16 Dec reported that between mid-Aug and mid-Nov, country had witnessed 23% rise in security-related incidents compared to same period last year.
Taliban and Pakistani border forces clashed. Taliban border forces 11 Dec launched cross-border artillery and mortars into Pakistan, killing at least seven civilians and wounding 17 in Chaman, one of main border crossings. Further clashes 15 Dec erupted, with Taliban forces opening fire on Pakistani military personnel repairing section of border fence in Chaman, killing civilian and injuring 15 others.
Taliban sought to suppress National Resistance Front and Islamic State’s local branch threats in north east, while Taliban signalled harsher restrictions, particularly aimed at women.
Anti-Taliban resistance forces continued insurgency in north east. Despite falling levels of violence with onset of cold weather, insecurity continued in Badakhshan province (north east) after Taliban in Oct launched large-scale operations in districts bordering Tajikistan; operations for time being appeared to stunt National Resistance Front (NRF) activities in province but strained relations with Tajikistan, neighbouring country that harbours NRF fighters. Similarly, in Takhar province (north east), numerous reports surfaced during month of Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) and NRF attacks; Taliban forces launched raids against hideouts, primarily targeting ISKP. Meanwhile, deadly clashes erupted between Taliban and Pakistani border forces around Chaman border crossing 13 Nov and in Paktia province (east) 15 Nov (see Pakistan). Bomb 30 Nov targeting religious school in Samangan province (north) killed at least 17 students, majority of them believed to be children.
Taliban regime continued repressive measures, including on women. Taliban 5 Nov stated efforts were under way to end caretaker govt model; how the Taliban will shift to permanent govt remains unclear as group signalled intent to introduce additional governance restrictions. UN children’s agency 7 Nov claimed that women were increasingly being denied access to health facilities unless accompanied by male relatives; ministry for promoting virtue and preventing vice next day announced closure of women’s public baths and declared that women will no longer be able to visit public parks. UN experts 25 Nov said treatment of women and girls may amount to “gender persecution”. Earlier, Taliban 3 Nov arrested human rights activist Zarifa Yaqhoubi and her colleagues in capital Kabul who announced formation of women-led political party. Taliban emir 13 Nov met with judges and urged application of stricter punishments against kidnappers, seditionists and thieves.
Humanitarian crisis persisted as winter approached. With harsh winter fast approaching, little progress was made in addressing economic and humanitarian crises; notably, China 9 Nov announced it will grant zero-tariffs on 98% of Afghan products from Dec onward.
National Resistance Front (NRF) expanded activities in north, while U.S. announced financial initiative to ease country’s economic isolation as humanitarian crisis persists.
NRF stepped up activity in north east, as Taliban targeted Islamic State’s local branch. Badakhshan province (north east) witnessed rising insecurity, due to inroads made by National Resistance Front (NRF) fighters and recent defections of Taliban-aligned groups in area. Notably, NRF 3 Oct published video showing capture of Taliban’s governor for Badakhshan’s Shekay district, marking first significant activity by NRF in Badakhshan and suggesting expansion of group’s presence in north; group also announced capture of Shekay district, although this claim was rejected by local residents. Taliban 6 Oct appointed former head of air force, Mawlawi Amanuddin, as province’s governor; Amanuddin appeared to have launched major offensive in province in order to subdue resistance forces. Meanwhile, Taliban forces continued raiding Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) hideouts countrywide, including in capital Kabul, and 4 Oct announced capture of group’s foreign liaison head; ISKP maintains high level of activity, primarily in east.
Taliban sent mixed signals on girls’ tertiary education. In early month, girls in many provinces took part in kankor, or university entrance exams, suggesting that despite closure of girls’ secondary schooling, tertiary education remains open to female students. Reports 14 Oct emerged that de facto authorities had expelled some female Kabul University students, possibly due to involvement with protests. Following replacement of Education Minister in late Sept, Taliban Emir 17 Oct replaced Minister of Higher Education; ramifications of appointment on girls’ tertiary education remain unclear.
U.S. announced new financial initiative amid engagement with Taliban. With Afghanistan’s harsh winter fast approaching, international focus centred on country’s humanitarian and economic crises. Senior U.S. delegation 9 Oct met with Taliban delegation in Qatar’s capital Doha to discuss security and economic issues. U.S. Special Envoy Tom West 22 Oct stated U.S. and other countries would facilitate priority transactions to overcome banking challenges in initiative aimed at permitting authorities to spend tax revenues on vital supplies.
Taliban continued discriminatory policies toward women and girls and rejected U.S. initiative on unfreezing state assets; Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) stepped up deadly attacks.Taliban leadership continued repression of women’s rights and freedoms. Taliban Supreme Court 4 Sept asserted there was “no need” for female judges. Deputy justice minister next day stated country had “no need” for constitution or political parties. Local authorities 5 Sept reopened girls’ secondary schooling in Paktia province after demands by local tribal elders; de facto authorities, however, closed schools once again, sparking protests. UN special rapporteur 12 Sept highlighted significant deterioration of women’s rights since Taliban takeover. Emir 21 Sept appointed close ally Mawlawi Habibullah Agha as education minister.Despite poor economic trajectory, Taliban did not accept U.S. proposal on unfreezing state assets. U.S. 15 Sept announced plan to establish fund in Switzerland for disbursement of $3.5bn from frozen Afghan financial reserves. Taliban same day called mechanism “unacceptable”, primarily as it bypassed central bank and excluded Taliban input. Minister of commerce 6 Sept expressed hopes of joining China’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor megaproject. In apparent prisoner exchange, U.S. 19 Sept handed drug dealer and long-time Taliban supporter, Haji Bashir Noorzai, to Taliban, which released U.S. citizen taken hostage in 2019.ISKP intensified deadly attacks, Taliban launched new offensive in north. Taliban 1 Sept claimed killing of ISKP’s shadow governor for Farah province (west). ISKP 2 Sept killed firebrand cleric and Taliban supporter Mawlawi Mujib ur Rahman Ansari in suicide blast in Herat province (west). ISKP 5 Sept attacked Russia’s embassy in capital Kabul, killing two Russian diplomats, among others. Blast at Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque inside Kabul’s diplomatic zone 23 Sept caused casualties and bore hallmarks of ISKP. Blast at mosque in Kabul 23 Sept killed at least seven worshippers; similar attack on school in Kabul killed at least 19 students 30 Sept. Meanwhile, Taliban 13 Sept launched major offensive in Panjshir and Andarab provinces against insurgents. Some anti-Taliban political figures, notably National Resistance Front leader, 15 Sept gathered in Austrian capital Vienna. Al-Qaeda 12 Sept claimed group had ceased any attacks against U.S. from Afghanistan.
U.S. killed al-Qaeda chief in first high-profile strike since Aug 2021 withdrawal, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) targeted Taliban and religious minorities, and Taliban clashed with Pakistani forces. U.S. President Biden 1 Aug confirmed U.S. had killed al-Qaeda chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, in drone strike in capital Kabul on 31 July; Washington accused Taliban authorities of violating Feb 2020 Doha agreement by providing sanctuary to al-Zawahiri, while Taliban countered U.S. conducted strike without informing them. Reports surfaced 5 Aug of widespread protests across country condemning strike. Leaked U.S. intelligence assessment 13 Aug argued al-Qaeda had not regrouped in country. Over 3,000 tribal and religious leaders 19 Aug gathered in Kandahar, including Taliban Emir Hibatullah Akhundzada, to condemn strike and call on neighbours not to cooperate with such “violations of Afghan sovereignty”, as reports suggested U.S. and Pakistan neared deal on U.S. use of Pakistani airspace for future operations. ISKP continued recruitment and lethal attacks. In early Aug, security forces arrested several ISKP cells; recent arrests of Tajiks indicated ISKP’s inroads in recruiting ethnic minority groups. ISKP attacked Hazara civilians in lead-up to Ashura religious commemorations, with three attacks 3-6 Aug. ISKP suicide bombing 11 Aug killed senior Taliban-affiliated cleric Rahimullah Haqqani. ISKP 18 Aug claimed attack on Sufi mosque in Kabul. Insecurity persisted elsewhere. New armed group Watandost Front published video claiming attack on 1 Aug against Taliban forces in Herat province (west). Unknown assailants 8 Aug killed senior Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Omar Khalid Khorasani in IED blast in Paktika province (east). High Resistance Council for Saving Afghanistan – anti-Taliban resistance group formed in May – 15 Aug held virtual meeting attended by Ahmad Massoud, leader of National Resistance Front (NRF), which resulted in issuance of group’s constitution; NRF also announced its basic principles after meeting. Pakistani and Taliban forces 8 and 22 Aug clashed in Kunar (east) and Paktya (south east) provinces. Taliban defence minister 17 Aug rejected possibility of compromise on Wakhan Corridor amid social media rumours Pakistan might attempt to encroach on thin strip of Afghan territory in order to gain direct access to Central Asia.
UN voiced concerns over human rights under Taliban’s governance, while Taliban continued to battle Islamic State Khorasan Province and Northern Resistance Front. UN Human Rights Council 1 July began session discussing human rights of women and girls in country and adopted resolution reaffirming commitment to rights, including education and free movement. In report on human rights, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan 19 July reported “erosion of women’s rights has been one of the most notable aspects of the de facto administration to date”. In attempt to garner domestic legitimacy, Taliban authorities organised gathering of nearly 4,500 scholars and community leaders; participants 2 July pledged allegiance to Taliban Emir, denounced rebellion against govt, and called on international community to recognise Taliban govt. On economic front, hardship continued. Local media reports 18 July indicated some 170,000 retired civil servants are yet to receive pensions. Senior Pakistani trade delegation 20 July visited Kabul to discuss continuation of Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. De facto govt during month sought to reopen women-led businesses, notably in capital Kabul (east), Jowzjan (north), Balkh (north), Herat (west) and Kandahar (south). Meanwhile, Taliban launched raids against Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP): notably, security forces 16 July raided ISKP hideout in Kunduz city (north), allegedly against cell responsible for recent cross-border attacks into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan; 19 July launched raid in Samangan province (north), where they killed ISKP members allegedly responsible for beheading of Taliban fighter on 14 July; 20 July allegedly captured three foreign fighters in Kabul. NGO Human Rights Watch 7 July accused de facto authorities of committing war crimes in their fight against ISKP. UN Sanctions Monitoring Team 19 July reported that al-Qaeda in country does not pose major international threat for now due to lack of capacity and need to stay on good terms with Taliban. Fighting in north also continued between Taliban and Northern Resistance Front (NRF). NRF 7 July purportedly captured Taliban military base in Baghlan province. Taliban mid-July launched offensive against NRF in Baghlan’s Andarab region. NRF leader Ahmad Massoud 12 July claimed NRF had 3,000 armed fighters.
Intra-Taliban debate over social policies continued, World Bank announced new economic projects, and fighting between Taliban and opposition groups persisted. Video 6 June surfaced showing Kabul governor stating current situation regarding women is not acceptable and urged ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice to implement decrees in capital. Deputy FM Abbas Stanikzai 19 June criticised govt’s decision not to reopen girls’ secondary schools. Meanwhile, World Bank 3 June approved three projects totaling $793mn to support essential food, livelihood and health services for Afghans. Taliban govt continued measures in attempt to resuscitate economy, including launching “Afghan Invest” enterprise mid-month and hosting trade show for female entrepreneurs in Kabul 9 June. Media reports early month indicated country’s exports to Pakistan have increased during financial year, from $550mn last year to more than $700mn. Groups opposing Taliban rule continued attacks. Fighting between National Resistance Front (NRF) fighters and Taliban security personnel persisted in Andarab district in Baghlan province (north) and Panjshir province (north). Notably, NRF fighters 17 June downed helicopter operated by Taliban and captured four prisoners in Panjshir. NGO Human Rights Watch 10 June accused Taliban security forces of war crimes in Panjshir, claims which UN Special Rapporteur Richard Bennett tentatively endorsed same day; NGO Amnesty International 16 June accused Taliban of “torture, extrajudicial executions and arbitrary arrest of civilians” in Panjshir. Standoff persisted between Maulawi Mehdi, Shia Hazara Taliban commander, and Taliban security personnel in Balkhab District in Sar-e Pol province (north), raising prospect of first instance of significant intra-Taliban clashes; central authorities removed Mehdi as local intelligence chief in Nov 2021. Taliban forces 28 June launched attack on Balkhab district, capturing district capital following day; residual fighting likely in coming days. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) 18 June claimed attack on Sikh temple in Kabul, killing at least two people and injuring seven; group said attack was retaliation for derogatory comments made by India’s ruling party (see India).
Taliban imposed further restrictions on women’s rights, opposition stepped up deadly attacks in north, and authorities engaged in regional de-escalation initiatives. After March decision banning girls’ access to secondary schools, govt 7 May announced new restrictions with “hijab” ruling requiring face veil for women when in vicinity of non-family male members; move immediately prompted Western condemnation, further complicating aid efforts. Some govt officials suggested ruling was necessary to appease hardliners, while Minister of Interior Sirajuddin Haqqani 17 May stated girls’ secondary education will resume shortly without stipulating timeline. Leaked decree 16 May also suggested govt had dissolved multiple commissions, including Independent Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, UN 13 May warned that it will have to reduce number of Afghans it is helping from 38% to 8% due to lack of funding; UN human rights rapporteur in Afghanistan 14 May conducted visit to country 15-26 May, expressed concerns about “serious human rights challenges”, including severe restriction on women’s freedoms. Opposition continued to launch stepped-up attacks in north. Notably, violence early May rose in Panjshir province after video surfaced on social media of Taliban fighters dancing near mausoleum of senior resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud during Eid celebrations 1-2 May. While Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid 5 May distanced govt from these actions, by next day rumours had emerged of serious fighting between National Resistance Front (NRF) fighters and Taliban in Takhar, Panjshir, Badakhshan and Baghlan provinces. Govt initially denied reports, but over coming days sent significant reinforcements to north and began claiming victories over rebels. Recent fighting reinvigorated opposition, with High Resistance Council for Saving Afghanistan holding gathering condemning Taliban injustices and calling fighting in north “legitimate” without explicitly endorsing NRF. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) continued attacks during month; notably, ISKP 8 May reportedly fired Katyusha rockets into Tajikistan. Regionally, tensions with neighbours eased somewhat. Pakistan 18 May participated in Taliban-hosted talks with Pakistan Taliban group (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, TTP) (see Pakistan); Iran 12 May hosted Taliban delegation following another round of border clashes prompted by videos purporting to show mistreatment of Afghan refugees and Afghan immigrant stabbing three Iranian clerics in Mashhad city.
Taliban announced farming restrictions which could aggravate economic crisis, series of terror attacks claimed over one hundred civilian casualties, and several new armed resistance groups emerged. In move that is likely to exacerbate financial woes of many farmers, Taliban 3 April announced ban on cultivation of all poppy crops and production of all other narcotics (including alcohol); implementation remained uncertain. Taliban also reportedly increased interference in humanitarian efforts in April, pushing for aid to be distributed in coordination with govt. After relatively calm months, country witnessed several mass casualty attacks coinciding with Spring season, mostly targeting Shia Hazara ethnic minority, as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) launched some of its deadliest attacks of year. Notably, bomb blasts 2 April killed five and injured at least 20 people on playground in Herat (west); bomb blasts 19 April targeted Hazara children going to school and education centres in capital Kabul; bomb blasts 21 April targeted minivan in Kunduz province (north), killing at least 18 govt employees; ISKP same day attacked Hazara mosque in Balkh province (north), killing dozens; bomb blasts 22 April targeted Sunni mosque, killing 33 in Kunduz province, with no group claiming responsibility; twin explosions 28 April killed at least nine people on two buses in Balkh province (north), again targeting Hazara. Explosion at Khalifa Sahib Mosque in Kabul 29 April killed over 50 Sunni worshippers. Grievances against Taliban govt appeared to rise, with several new armed resistance groups emerging, bringing total to near dozen such groups active inside country, mostly in northern provinces; National Resistance Front (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud, Afghanistan Freedom Front (purportedly led by former General Zia Yasin) and High Council for Resistance (led by Atta Noor) appeared to be particularly active. Most notably, NRF attacks and Taliban counter-operations continued in Panjshir, Parwan, Kabul, Kapisa, Baghlan and Takhar provinces in April. Meanwhile, relations with Pakistan worsened. Pakistan 16 April launched cross-border airstrikes, resulting in dozens of civilian casualties in Kunar and Khost provinces (east); Taliban authorities warned Islamabad of dire consequences, while Pakistan accused Taliban of failing to prevent Pakistani Taliban from launching cross-border attacks against Pakistani security forces.
Taliban expanded security operations against National Resistance Front (NRF) and reversed pledge on girls’ education, while rising global food prices aggravated humanitarian crisis. Taliban continued to appoint loyalists, including appointments 4 March in defence sector and judiciary and 13 March in civilian and technical positions. Following 25 Feb Taliban large-scale search operations in north, specifically in Kabul, Kapisa, Parwan and Panjshir, in attempt to forestall spring offensive by NRF, Taliban early March expanded operations to Logar and Laghman provinces (east), Baghlan province (north), and Herat and Badghis provinces (west); rumours rose of imminent large-scale operations in Nangarhar province (east). Risk of Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) and NRF resuming operations in warmer weather remained. Meanwhile, Taliban continued restrictions on civil dissent and media freedom. Tolo News 18 March reported authorities had ordered all networks to stop broadcasting foreign drama series; Taliban’s intelligence branch same day briefly arrested senior Tolo News figures. NGO Afghan Journalist Safety Committee 19 March stated that authorities had arrested eleven journalists and media workers within past two days. In first sign of willingness to hold elections, authorities 9 March held municipal poll in one district of capital Kabul. Meanwhile, Taliban introduced economic policies to address unfolding humanitarian crisis; Kabul municipality 6 March imposed price caps on essential commodities and Ministry of Finance 12 March announced tax, arrears and penalty waivers for small taxpayers. Ministry of Education 17 March announced that all schools, including girls’ secondary schools, would open on 23 March; in last-minute reversal, Taliban 23 March decided to close secondary schools to girls, prompting chaotic scenes and widespread international condemnation as female secondary school students took to streets to demand their right to education. On humanitarian front, World Bank 1 March announced plan to use $1bn from Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to address urgent needs in education, health, agricultural and communal livelihood sectors; humanitarian crisis could however further worsen in coming months as donor states consider how to respond to Taliban’s decision on girls’ secondary schools and rising global food prices affect 23mn people on brink of famine.
Taliban continued to consolidate its rule as international actors unfroze country’s financial assets and pressured regime to respect women’s rights. Taliban continued to fill govt positions with Taliban loyalists. Taliban 2 Feb appointed Qari Salahuddin Ayubi, an ethnic Uzbek, as head of Mansoori army corps, reportedly to appease Uzbek Taliban fighters after arrest of popular Uzbek commander Makhdoom Alam on 12 Jan. Taliban appointed some women in symbolic govt positions, including Dr Malalai Faizi as director of Malalai Maternity Hospital 31 Jan. Taliban information ministry 13 Feb also appointed Nisa Mobarez as women’s representative in Badakhshan province. Some women protesters that were apparently abducted by Taliban authorities were released around 13 Feb following international outrage; Taliban did not officially confirm their arrest or release. Journalists continued to complain of Taliban’s media restrictions including short-term detentions. Taliban authorities also temporarily detained two foreigners working for UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Targeted attacks against former govt figures continued. Unknown assailants 11 Feb attacked former Hizb commander Mohammad Khan’s house, resulting in death of his son, wife and bodyguard; Taliban claimed attack was result of family feud, while Khan rejected claim. Taliban forces 5 Feb arrested at least 24 Baloch separatists from Baloch Liberation Army group, which is waging insurgency against Pakistan (see Pakistan). Attacks by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) subsided, while attacks by Northern Resistance Front (NRF) appeared to be on the rise; NRF-affiliated fighters clashed with Taliban forces in Balkh and Baghlan provinces (north) during month, and Taliban launched major military operations against NRF forces in Panjshir late Feb. Internationally, U.S. President Biden 11 Feb signed executive order to split $7 billion of frozen Afghan reserves, with half of money removed from pending legal cases so it can be utilised “for the benefit of the Afghan people”. World Bank 19 Feb considered plan to use $1 billion in frozen Afghan trust fund for education, agriculture, health and family programs. Meanwhile, Taliban delegation 7 Feb visited Switzerland to discuss humanitarian assistance; 15 Feb visited Qatar’s capital Doha to meet Arab Gulf and EU representatives.
Taliban continued to tighten their rule as government increasingly imposed ideologically driven policies; for first time since August takeover, group showed signs of disunity. Taliban imposed policies regulating social behaviour. Notably, Taliban officials 3 Jan ordered shopkeepers in parts of Herat province (west) to remove heads from display mannequins (as per their beliefs, representations of human figures are prohibited in Islam). Authorities 25 Dec dissolved Independent Election Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission, institutions that had overseen presidential and parliamentary polls. Taliban continued to target figures who challenge their rule; security forces 8 Jan erroneously arrested prominent critic Professor Faizullah Jalal (who was released a few days later), and 6 Jan reportedly arrested social media activist Faisal Mudarres, following his coverage of Dec Panjshir protests. Reports also claimed Taliban arrested female protesters mid-month; six women’s rights activists abducted in capital Kabul remained missing by end of month. Taliban leadership has denied responsibility for incidents, and have yet to clarify whereabouts of missing women or identify culprits. Attacks by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and Northern Resistance Front (NRF) continued albeit at reduced rate, in part because of harsh winter conditions. Taliban FM Amir Muttaqi 10 Jan met NRF head in Iran but talks do not appear to have borne any immediate results. Taliban 12 Jan arrested one of their popular Uzbek commanders, Makhdoom Alam, in Mazar city, Balkh province, revealing possible ethnic divisions between Uzbek and Pashtun Taliban; Alam’s arrest led to sporadic Uzbek Taliban-led protests in Faryab province’s Maymana city (north west), with reports that Uzbek Taliban had disarmed and expelled Pashtun Taliban from city. In response, Taliban 16 Jan deployed suicide attack unit to quell unrest; situation appeared to have quietened by month’s end. Internationally, Taliban 9 and 24 Jan visited Iran and met with European and U.S. officials in Norway’s capital Oslo; international counterparts have yet to formally recognise Taliban as new Afghan govt. EU 21 Jan announced it had started to re-establish diplomatic presence in capital Kabul. Meanwhile, tensions with Pakistan persisted over security at Afghanistan-Pakistan border (see Pakistan entry).
Taliban consolidated their rule across country, launched new offensive in north and faced skirmishes at border with Iran. Taliban’s governing approach of continuing provincial-level policy on some issues, rather than consolidating and centralising all policies, surfaced during month. Notably, social media updates showed group promulgating rules for medical centres and pharmacies in north, banning music in south and issuing price lists to curtail inflating prices for basic commodities in several districts of Kabul province. Taliban 3 Dec issued decree on women’s issues, including consent in marriage and inheritance rights, with no mention however of women’s education or recent closure of women’s schools in parts of country; 26 Dec introduced decree prohibiting women from travelling more than 45 miles unless accompanied by male relative. Taliban sought to appease minority groups, specifically Shia Hazara; notably, govt 25 Dec appointed Abdul Latif Nazari as deputy minister of economy, making him second Hazara to be appointed at deputy ministerial level. Taliban increased operations against remnants of Northern Resistance Front (NRF) in north; Taliban 1 Dec claimed having killed several NRF members in Samangan province (north); 5 Dec raided NRF hideout in Baghlan province (north). Taliban carried out raids in several cities across country, notably in Helmand province (south) 5 Dec, seizing large quantities of munitions. Islamic State Khorasan Province did not carry out large-scale attacks during Dec; group however showed signs its operations are expanding across country, as with ambush 7 Dec targeting provincial police chief in Nuristan province (east), killing multiple Taliban soldiers. Taliban and Iranian forces 1 Dec clashed at border in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province, leaving multiple casualties on both sides, while reports revealed Taliban forces may have entered Iranian territory and captured several Iranian border checkpoints; situation quickly de-escalated through discrete talks between two sides. Relations strained with Pakistan over continued presence of Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and isolated incidents over border fencing. Taliban 19 Dec attended Organisation of Islamic Cooperation conference to discuss country’s humanitarian crisis. UN Security Council 22 Dec adopted Resolution 2615 that offers exemption to sanctions regime to allow greater humanitarian support to Afghanistan.
Amid worsening economic situation, Taliban continued to consolidate power despite ongoing small-scale security threats from Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and clashes with National Resistance Front. Taliban head Emir Hibatullah Akhundzada 7 Nov decreed major reshuffle in Taliban’s provincial structure, announcing 44 new personnel, including 17 governors; reshuffle seeks to limit commanders from developing local powerbases while promoting loyalists and demoting unruly commanders. Overall economic situation continued to deteriorate, but Taliban’s finances improved as it 16 Nov auctioned $2.1 mn after initially announcing it would auction $10 mn; group 20 Nov announced it would resume some salary payments to govt employees and retired civil servants. Meanwhile, ISIS-K attacks focused on Taliban security personnel and ethnic minority Hazaras. Notably, ISIS-K 2 Nov attacked Sardar Daud Khan Military Hospital in capital Kabul, killing dozens, including Taliban’s commander for Kabul’s military corps, Maulawi Hambdullah Mukhlis. UN Envoy to Afghanistan Deborah Lyons 19 Nov said ISIS-K is now active in all provinces of country. In response, Taliban cracked down on ISIS-K suspects, resulting in disappearances and extrajudicial killings throughout country; Taliban 10 Nov claimed to have arrested 600 ISIS-K suspects. Meanwhile, reports of fighting between National Resistance Front and Taliban continued throughout month in northern Parwan, Panjshir and Baghlan provinces. Regional diplomatic activities focused on alleviating worsening economic and humanitarian situation. Taliban delegation led by FM Amir Khan Muttaqi 10 Nov met with members of Troika Plus (Pakistan, Russia, China, U.S.) in Pakistan; Troika Plus agreed to ease banking restrictions on govt. India same day chaired regional security dialogue on Afghanistan with seven neighbouring countries. Reports 4 Nov emerged that Taliban facilitated covert talks between Pakistani Taliban and Pakistan (see Pakistan). Taliban and U.S. officials 29-30 Nov held talks in Qatar’s capital Doha to discuss wide range of issues.
Insecurity persisted as Islamic State Khorasan Province launched dozens of attacks, killing scores, and land disputes resurfaced amid dire food crisis across country. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) significantly ramped up its activities against Taliban, carrying out dozens of attacks, including three that caused mass casualties. Notably, ISIS-K 3 Oct killed five civilians attending funeral for Taliban spokesperson’s mother in capital Kabul; 8 Oct killed more than 40 civilians at Shiite mosque in Kunduz province (north); 15 Oct killed at least 50 civilians at Shiite mosque in Kandahar city (south). Additionally, smaller-scale attacks against Taliban security personnel occurred daily throughout country, notably in Nangarhar (east), Kunar (east) and Kunduz (north) provinces. In response, Taliban raided ISIS-K hideouts in Kabul, Parwan (east) and Kunduz (north) provinces, killing ISIS-K members and family members, arrested hundreds of ISIS-K suspects, particularly in Nangarhar (east) and Kunar (east), and increased checkpoints to limit freedom of movement between provinces. Separately, Northern Resistance Front maintained low-level resistance, launching small-scale attacks in Panjshir and Parwan provinces (north). UN warned of unprecedented levels of hunger as drought and economic crisis left half country acutely food insecure, according to 25 Oct UN assessment. Ethnic and tribal tensions increased due to competition over resources. In Daikundi and Ghazni provinces (centre), land disputes led to displacement of ethnic minority Hazaras. In Daikundi province, two-decade-old land dispute between Pashtun tribes of northern Uruzgan and Hazaras of Daikundi resurfaced. On political front, Taliban 5 Oct announced additional govt appointments, including Maulawi Abdul Kabir as Deputy PM for Political Affairs, Maulawi Matiul Haq, son of Younus Khali, as head of Red Crescent, and Nurudding Turabi as his deputy; 28 Oct announced Maulawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani as head of Supreme Court. Internationally, despite meetings with U.S., Russian, Turkish and Indian officials during month, Taliban made little progress to gain formal recognition of govt, and to get country’s financial assets unfrozen by U.S. govt. However, working relations continued with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China and Kyrgyzstan; relations with Pakistan deteriorated amid border skirmishes after Taliban accused Islamabad of implementing restrictions on transit of goods and people.
Amid worsening humanitarian crisis and crackdown on protests, Taliban tightened its grip across country, including by gaining control over Panjshir province. After initial negotiation efforts failed, Taliban 2 Sept stepped up efforts to capture last stronghold of Panjshir province (north) as group sent troops, set up blockade and cut off telecommunications, food and other supplies from getting to valley. Taliban 6 Sept gained control of provincial capital, marking first time group controls city; Ahmad Massoud, leader of Northern Resistance Front, same day vowed to resist and called for large-scale protests. Series of anti-Taliban protests took place in early Sept; notably, hundreds of people, including women, 7 Sept protested in capital Kabul chanting anti-Pakistan slogans and “freedom”; amid rising crackdown on demonstrators, Taliban 9 Sept cut off internet and phone services to several suburbs of Kabul to disrupt coordination among protesters. Taliban 7-8 Sept announced new acting govt composed of old guard, including Mohammad Hassan Akhund, group’s founding member, as PM; Abdul Ghani Baradar, lead negotiator in U.S.-Taliban Feb 2020 deal, as deputy PM; Mohammad Yaqub, son of group’s first leader Mohammad Omar, as defence minister; Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of prominent militant Jalaluddin Haqqani, as interior minister; and Amir Khan Muttaqi, veteran Taliban diplomat, as FM. First slate of cabinet appointments excluded women and several ethnic groups (only small minority of appointments are non-Pashtuns); no state had yet recognised new govt by end of month. Following U.S. freeze in mid-Aug over country’s financial assets and aid suspension, concerns rose over economic collapse, humanitarian crisis and potential mass exodus; donors 13 Sept pledged more than $1.1 billion following UN flash appeal for humanitarian assistance. Aside from sporadic violence in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces, violent incidents reportedly six times lower than 2021 average prior to Taliban take-over. There was, however, increasing trend of incidents targeting Taliban’s security forces, with majority being claimed by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K): notably, roadside bombs near daily mid-to-late month targeted Taliban vehicles in Nangarhar province (east); bomb 18 Sept attacked private vehicle leaving two civilians injured.
In rapid takeover, Taliban regained control over country, prompting fall of govt and ending 20-year U.S. occupation; uncertainty over new political order fuelled domestic and international security concerns. In dramatic shift, govt 15 Aug collapsed and Taliban gained control of most territory, including all border crossings and major urban centres – with notable exception of Panjshir Valley province (north). As Taliban reached capital Kabul, President Ghani 15 Aug fled abroad, along with many other govt officials. Govt’s fall prompted mass exodus of Afghans fearing Taliban retaliation, notably causing chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport; two bombs 26 Aug exploded outside Kabul airport, reportedly killing as many as 200 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members; Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility. Following Taliban’s takeover, U.S. mid-Aug froze Afghanistan’s central bank reserves in U.S. while International Monetary Fund and World Bank suspended payments to country; UN and humanitarian organisations called for continued assistance to country amid dire humanitarian crisis. Regional and international partners to Afghanistan had yet to announce positions on sanctions, financial aid and recognition of new govt by month’s end, waiting for Taliban to make meaningful compromises in new political order. Taliban’s rapid advances in early Aug partly due to local ‘surrender deals’ which granted safe passage to security forces in return for weapons and district centres as insurgents late July to mid-Aug launched simultaneous attacks on provincial capitals in south, east and north. Following initial hearty resistance, particularly in Helmand province (south), Kandahar city (south) and Herat province (west), insurgents captured provincial capitals in lightly defended areas. Taliban 6 Aug held first provincial capital in Nimroz province (south west), gaining control of last remaining border crossing to Iran under govt oversight; 7 Aug captured capital of Jawzjan province (north); 9 Aug captured provinces of Sar-e Pul (north) and Kunduz (north), second largest city in north; 12 Aug captured Ghazni (centre), Kandahar (south), Herat (west) and Badghis (north west). Loss of Herat and Kandahar, notably important cities, seemed to have broken security forces’ moral, who following day had abandoned provincial capitals of Helmand (south), Logar (east), Uruzgan (south), Zabul (south) and Ghor (centre) provinces.
Taliban forces continued nationwide offensive, launching first assault on Kandahar city since Western intervention in 2001 and seizing more international border crossings. Taliban continued to make territorial advances throughout month, mostly in north and north west, and gained strategically important border crossings. Taliban attacks 5 July killed 16 security forces in Herat province (west), which saw all but two districts fall under Taliban control during month, and 6 July killed 65 security forces in Badghis (north west). Taliban 12 July killed 25 security forces in Kandahar province (south), in which group had encircled Kandahar city, and fighting remained ongoing in its outskirts by end of month; assault on city, largest in southern Afghanistan and de facto capital of former Taliban regime in 1990s, is first since Western intervention in 2001 and could mark moment of strategic importance in conflict; govt poured resources into defence of city. Taliban 14 July killed 11 security forces in Takhar province (north). In addition to seizing 26 of 28 districts in Badakhshan province (north east), Taliban fighters 5 July seized control of border crossing with Iran in Herat province (west) and 14 July took over border crossing with Pakistan in Kandahar province. Govt forces rebounded slightly by shoring up defence of provincial capitals. Govt 8 July briefly drove back Taliban after they entered capital of Badghis province (north west). Govt defences also held in other provinces, such as Ghazni (centre), Helmand (south) and Kandahar (south) during month. Anti-Taliban militia also rallied in urban centres, such as northern city Mazar-e Sharif. Meanwhile, peace process remained stalled despite high-level meetings between govt and Taliban’s political office in Iran’s capital Tehran (7-8 July) and Qatar’s capital Doha (17-18 July); further high-level talks expected in August. Internationally, tensions heightened with Islamabad. Afghan VP Amrullah Saleh 15 July alleged Pakistani air force requested Afghan govt not to attack Taliban positions on border, which Pakistan’s MFA denied. Kabul 18 July withdrew its ambassador and senior diplomats from Islamabad, alleging kidnapping of ambassador’s daughter.
Taliban sustained major offensive, gaining additional district centres and killing over 500 Afghan security forces; deadly terror attacks targeted minority Hazara community. Taliban forced govt troops, police and militia to retreat from more than 50 districts, most in north and north east, throughout month; while Taliban often declined to occupy space, gains constitute significant loss in govt’s territorial standing, revealing structural weaknesses in Afghan security forces. Taliban 21 June also seized control of main border crossing with Tajikistan. In series of attacks, Taliban 2 June killed 40 govt forces in border area of Nangarhar (east); 4 June killed 11 security forces in Herat province (west); 5 June killed 26 security forces in Badakhshan (north east) and Badghis (north west); 9 June killed 21 soldiers in Badakhshan and Nimroz provinces (south west); 12 June killed 20 security forces in Ghor province (centre). Taliban 6 June also killed 17 security forces in truck bombing in Balkh province (north), and same day killed 28 security forces in another car bombing in Faryab province (north). In coming months, potential for Taliban to overrun provincial capitals is high. Meanwhile, a more organic form of popular resistance to Taliban emerged in several provinces, including Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan. Deadly terror attacks targeting ethnic Hazara minority persisted. In capital Kabul, bombings against civilians 1 and 3 June killed at least 14 and wounded 17 more in Hazara neighbourhoods. Unknown armed men 8 June attacked staff of international charity clearing land mines and attempted to single out Hazara employees, killing ten and injuring 16 in Baghlan Province (north). Additional attack on humanitarians 15 June killed at least five polio vaccinators in Nangarhar province (east). President Ghani 20 June announced replacement of army chief of staff, defence minister and interior minister amid rising casualties in Afghan security forces. Ghani, Vice President Saleh, top advisers and chief rival Abdullah 24-25 June visited U.S. capital Washington, met with U.S. President Biden and top U.S. officials to reaffirm commitments to fund and support Afghan govt and security forces.
Taliban intensified coordinated assaults on Afghan military positions, with govt forces losing more district centres; terror attacks killed over 100 civilians. Deadly Taliban attacks escalated in nature and intensity throughout month as part of annual Spring offensive, especially from 1 May – start of symbolic U.S./NATO troop withdrawal. Notably, Taliban 2 May attacked security post, killing 12 security forces in Badakhshan province (north east); 3 May seized positions around Helmand’s capital (south) with 18 security forces killed or wounded; 4 May killed nine security forces in Baghlan province (north), followed by the surrender of 100 more on 6 May; 4 May killed 20 soldiers in Farah province (south west); and 7-8 May killed 23 soldiers in Ghazni and Wardak provinces (centre). Taliban offensive led to militants gaining control of district centres in Laghman, Wardak and Baghlan by end of month. Month also saw heavy toll on civilians: triple bombing 8 May targeted school in Hazara neighbourhood in capital Kabul, killing at least 90 civilians, mostly women and girls, and wounding 240 more; govt blamed Taliban for attack but group denied responsibility. IEDs on bus 10 May killed 11 civilians in Zabul province (South); bomb 14 May exploded in mosque, killing 12 civilians in capital Kabul, Islamic State later claimed responsibility for attack. Roadside bomb 16 May also killed three civilians in Ghanzi province (East). Large Uzbek ethnic community in Faryab province (north) demonstrated angrily against govt’s attempt to appoint new governor with no ties to province or Uzbek community. U.S. and UK continued high-level diplomatic efforts to support peace process by engaging with senior Pakistani officials and Taliban representatives; moves resulted in resumption of Taliban-govt peace discussions in Qatar’s capital Doha 13 and 24 May and statement of willingness from Taliban to attend high-level peace conference in Turkey in future, with conditions. Australia withdrew embassy from Kabul amid increasing international concerns about security environment.
Taliban attacks continued at high intensity amid signs group could be gearing up for May offensive, while U.S. announced full troop withdrawal by 11 Sept 2021. Taliban continued daily violent attacks in several key areas suggesting preparation for large-scale offensive in coming months, likely after 1 May – date on which U.S. forces are supposed to withdraw according to Feb 2020 deal. In Kunduz province (north), significant Taliban attacks 6, 11, 14 April killed ten police officers on outskirts of Kunduz city, and attacks in border town of Imam Saheb district 6 and 15 April killed at least seven security personnel and as many as eight Taliban militants. In Sar-e Pul province (north), Taliban attacks 9 and 11 April killed five security forces, marking unusually high level of violence in province. In Zabul province (south), Taliban attack involving car bomb 15 April killed ten soldiers on military base in Shahjoy district. In Balkh province (north), Taliban attacks 13 and 22 April killed 18 soldiers and eight more were taken as prisoners. In Qarabagh district in Ghazni province (centre), fighting between Afghan security forces and Taliban displaced around 650 families. In Logar province (east), car bomb 30 April killed at least 27 people and injured over 100. Targeted killings continued across country, although attacks decreased in capital Kabul throughout month; notably, gunmen 18 April killed Afghan Air Force member and 21 April killed university security guard in Mazar-e Sharif city (north). In Kandahar province (south), insider attack at security outpost 11 April killed eight police officers. In major announcement, U.S. President Biden 14 April said U.S. will start evacuating remaining troops from 1 May and intends to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 Sept 2021. Responding to leaked reports, Taliban 13 April rejected U.S.-proposed summit on Afghan Peace Process in Turkey on 24 April on basis that they refuse to attend any Afghan peace summit until all foreign forces are pulled out of Afghanistan; Ankara later confirmed summit postponed. U.S. continued to support diplomatic efforts and rally regional and international consensus to pressure Taliban to remain engaged in talks.
Deadly attacks targeted women and Hazara community as Taliban continued assaults and clashes erupted between security forces and Hazara militia; U.S. proposed new peace plan. Following brief lull in violence late Feb, attacks – particularly targeting women, children and Hazara community – rose during first half of month. In Nangarhar (east), three separate attacks claimed by Islamic State’s Khorasan Province branch 2-3 March killed three female journalists and one female doctor, and armed gunmen 3 March killed seven Hazara civilians. Two IEDs in Hazara-majority neighbourhoods in capital Kabul 13 March killed four women and one child. Taliban attacks continued at high intensity in Nimroz, Kunduz, Daikundi, Sar-e-Pul provinces and elsewhere; notably, attacks targeting security outposts 19 and 22 March killed 11 and wounded ten in Baghlan province, and attack by Taliban infiltrator 13 March killed eight soldiers in Balkh province. In Wardak province (centre), tensions rose between security forces and Hazara militia after helicopter 18 March shot down by likely advanced weaponry, killing at least ten govt soldiers; govt forces responded by retaking Behsud district centre, under control of Hazara militia leader Abdul Ghani Alipur, raising prospect of clashes in coming month. Meanwhile, in Khost province (east), U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-backed paramilitary group Khost Provincial Force (KPF) 8 March killed 15 civilians during military operation against Taliban in Spera district. On diplomatic front, U.S. early month outlined multi-part peace plan in letter to Afghan leaders, proposing UN-led regional conference, interim power-sharing govt between Taliban and Afghan leaders, and high-level meeting hosted by Turkey to finalise agreement; U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalizad shared plan with Taliban and Pakistan during visits to Qatari capital Doha and Pakistani capital Islamabad 4-9 March; letter also noted U.S. yet to make decision on whether to completely withdraw forces by 1 May deadline; uncertainty over U.S. decision raises prospect of Taliban dropping self-imposed restrictions on attacks on provincial capitals and large-scale urban attacks, potentially escalating violence in run up to 1 May – or at least thereafter. Moscow 18 March hosted dialogue attended by China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Afghan political leaders and Taliban; President Ghani did not attend.
Taliban continued deadly attacks, while U.S. reviewed Afghan strategy ahead of May deadline for foreign troop withdrawal. Taliban launched deadly attacks in north and east while group continued slow-but-steady expansion of territorial lines in south as two district centres in Zabul province fell under its control. Taliban attack 3 Feb killed six police officers in Badghis province (north west); separate attacks same day killed 11 security officers in Nangarhar (east) and Sar-e Pul (north) provinces. Taliban 5 Feb killed 18 govt forces while overrunning National Directorate of Security support base in Kunduz province (north); 8 Feb killed 11 soldiers in Balkh province (north); Taliban same day killed three security forces in Ghor province (centre). Five security forces 11 Feb also killed after coming under Taliban attack while escorting UN convoy from capital Kabul to Jalalabad city. Taliban 15 Feb killed seven pro-govt militia members in Kunduz province (north); 17 Feb killed ten pro-govt militia and police in Daikundi province (centre). Meanwhile, after intra-Afghan peace talks abruptly ended in late Jan, negotiators 22 Feb returned to Qatar’s capital Doha to work on agenda. Priority for Afghan govt, U.S. and NATO is reduction in violence leading to ceasefire; Taliban so far have resisted all calls for ceasefire. U.S. Biden administration continued review of strategy in Afghanistan, including whether Taliban respected commitments under Feb 2020 agreement. In open letter, Taliban 16 Feb called on U.S. to honour 2020 agreement and to withdraw international troops by 1 May; U.S. Sec State Antony Blinken next day discussed strategic review in call with President Ghani, said that U.S. is committed to peace deal that includes “just and durable political settlement and permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”. NATO defence ministers next day met, but no decision made on whether or when to pull out of Afghanistan; NATO Sec Gen Jens Stoltenberg said alliance would postpone final decision and work with U.S. Sec Def General Lloyd Austin on way forward. Austin next day told reporters that Biden administration had not yet made decision but would consult with allies and partners.
Taliban stepped up deadly attacks on Afghan security forces, killing dozens; intra-Afghan peace talks resumed after short hiatus. Taliban conducted attacks at high intensity despite winter weather that typically ushers in period of reduced violence; while there was no strategic shift in conflict dynamics, sustained high tempo of conflict could strain intra-Afghan peace process. Taliban infiltrators inside security forces perpetrated numerous attacks involving shootings and poisoning, including: 4 Jan killed nine forces in Kandahar province (south); next day killed seven soldiers in Ghazni province (centre); 8 Jan killed five soldiers in Herat province (west); and 15 Jan killed 13 police officers. Taliban 14 Jan also attacked security outposts in Baghlan (north), killing nine security personnel; repeat attack 18 Jan killed another nine. Taliban attacks on military bases and security posts in Kunduz province (north) 7, 15 and 19 Jan killed 49 security personnel. Meanwhile, Afghan forces backed by U.S. air support repelled Taliban advances around Kandahar city throughout month. Afghan air force bombing 9 Jan killed 18 civilians, mostly children, in Nimroz province (south west); govt allegedly attempted to cover up number of casualties prompting local protests in provincial capital Zarange. Targeted killings by unidentified assailants continued: gunmen 1 Jan killed prominent local journalist Bismillah Adil Aimaq in Ghor province (centre); gunmen 17 Jan killed two female Supreme Court judges in capital Kabul. As violence surged, First VP Amrullah Saleh 18 Jan declared “capital punishment is needed to stop the wave of terror”, referring to imprisoned Taliban fighters. Following three-week break, intra-Afghan negotiations resumed without making significant progress: U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad 4-5 Jan returned to Qatar’s capital Doha to meet Taliban, then flew to Kabul to meet Afghan officials. President Ghani declined to meet with Khalilzad after reports he discussed possible interim govt with opposition political leaders. Following call between new U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib 22 Jan, White House same day said Biden administration will review Feb 2020 agreement “to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments”.
High-intensity violence persisted and intra-Afghan peace talks remained delayed ahead of planned U.S. military drawdown in Jan. Taliban continued to attack district centres in Kunduz, Farah, Uruzgan, Baghlan and elsewhere despite previous self-imposed restrictions regarding reprisals in urban areas. Unclaimed killings and smaller explosions continued to target activists, journalists and other non-combatants around capital Kabul; unknown gunmen 22 Dec attacked vehicle of govt-employed doctors who treat prisoners (including Taliban and Islamic State fighters) at Pul-e Charkhi prison. In Ghazni province, attack 18 Dec killed at least 15 civilians, mostly children, and wounded 20 others; car bomb in Kabul targeting Afghan parliament member Khan Mohammad Wardak 20 Dec killed at least ten civilians and wounded 52 others. Islamic State’s Khorasan Province branch (IS-KP) claimed responsibility for several attacks, including shooting of journalist Malala Maiwand in Jalalabad city on 10 Dec. IS-KP also claimed multiple attacks in Kabul, notably rocket attacks 12 Dec that killed one and injured two, and additional rockets 10 Dec that targeted U.S. Bagram Airfield. Meanwhile, in positive step, govt finalised formation of High Council of National Reconciliation, which 5 Dec convened for first time. Despite initial progress in intra-Afghan talks, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad 14 Dec announced both negotiating teams would take 20 days to “consult on the agenda items”, delaying intra-Afghan negotiations until 5 Jan. Agendas leaked 20-21 Dec illustrated stark differences between govt and Taliban regarding fundamental purpose of talks; notably, govt reportedly proposed ceasefire as first topic, while Taliban proposed it as final topic. Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Christopher Miller 22 Dec arrived in Kabul in unannounced visit and met with President Ghani, as U.S. military proceeded to reduce its forces from 4,500 to 2,500 in Jan in line with announcement made in Nov.
High-intensity hostilities continued as Taliban attacked areas around Kandahar, while U.S. announced troop drawdown and intra-Afghan peace process remained stalled. Taliban activity surged from late-Oct until 3-4 Nov, including series of large-scale attacks and operations in three districts surrounding Kandahar (south), country’s second-largest city; U.S. reportedly stepped up aerial bombardment of Taliban positions, allowing govt forces to re-enter contested districts; assault in Kandahar largely ended by 10 Nov. Elsewhere, Taliban ended self-imposed restrictions on attacking district centres, particularly in north, with attacks in Badghis (north west) and northern Balkh, Kunduz and Jowjzan provinces, including on main highway in latter; operations included Taliban 18 Nov seizing district centre in Badakhshan (north east) in surprise attack on govt forces that caused heavy casualties. However, more mountainous areas during month saw fall in conflict activity with onset of winter weather conditions. Car bomb in Ghazni province (centre) 29 Nov killed at least 30 members of security forces. In major announcement, Washington 17 Nov said it would reduce total number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 by mid-Jan, raising concern over potential surge in Taliban activity thereafter. Islamic State-Khorasan Province 2 Nov killed over 20 people in attack on Kabul University and 21 Nov killed at least eight in rocket attack in capital Kabul. Meanwhile, intra-Afghan talks in Qatar’s capital Doha remained stalled. Taliban and govt representatives 15-18 Nov appeared to agree on compromise over procedure and protocol for negotiations; however, agreement fell apart before being officially confirmed, reportedly under pressure from President Ghani who opposed substance and circumstances of agreement. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 21 Nov travelled to Doha to meet with govt and Taliban negotiators. At conference in Geneva, donors 24 Nov pledged some $12bn in aid for next four years.
Hostilities escalated as Taliban launched major attack on Helmand’s provincial capital while intra-Afghan peace talks stalled. Taliban 10-11 Oct launched large-scale assault on Lashkar Gah, provincial capital of Helmand province (south) in first major attack on urban centre in 2020; militants seized much of city’s outskirts amid reports of Afghan troops’ extensive withdrawal from front-line areas; fighting killed dozens and displaced over 35,000. Other notable Taliban attacks during month included: several clashes in Kunduz province (north) killing and wounding dozens of security forces 8, 9 and 18 Oct; assault on checkpoints in Gozargah-e Noor district, Baghlan province (north) 14 Oct that killed at least twelve police officers and soldiers; 18 Oct bombing in Firuzkoh, Ghor province (centre) that killed tens and wounded nearly 100; and assault on Baharak district, Takhar province (north) that killed at least fifteen security forces 21 Oct. U.S. military continued to limit its action, primarily conducting defensive airstrikes to protect Afghan troops around Lashkar Gah; U.S. President Trump 8 Oct tweeted he intended to continue drawdown of U.S. forces and have all soldiers “home by Christmas”. Islamic State (ISIS) claimed 24 Oct suicide attack at education centre in Kabul that killed at least 24. Meanwhile, intra-Afghan talks stalled in pre-negotiations over procedure and protocol; U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad 6 Oct travelled to Doha, Qatar’s capital, in effort to break impasse and urge de-escalation of violence; attempt to reduce violence seems to have failed but early reports suggest that parties may accept third-party mediation. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of former militia Hizb-e Islami, 21 Oct announced he would seek talks with Taliban to “join forces” in future Afghan state despite govt’s opposition. Domestic political tensions continued as High Council for National Reconciliation chief Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani continued to compete for political prominence; rolling series of visits conducted abroad by FM and Ghani appointee Hanif Atmar, along with Abdullah, including to India, Pakistan and Iran. Govt 16 Oct appointed VP Saleh to oversee security for Kabul; Saleh announced increased surveillance and tougher police enforcement in city.
Afghan govt and Taliban began long-awaited peace talks, while violence steadily increased across country. Taliban and govt 12 Sept began intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, Qatar’s capital, in ceremony attended by High Council for National Reconciliation chief Abdullah Abdullah, FM Hanif Atmar and international figures including U.S. Sec State Pompeo; despite some progress in establishing format and procedure of talks, issues emerged over role of religious minorities, such as Hazara community, and govt’s desire not to acknowledge Feb U.S.-Taliban agreement. Other contentious issues included Taliban’s opposition to govt’s open communication with national media, Taliban negotiators being more senior than their govt counterparts and domestic expectation that levels of violence would quickly fall. Meanwhile, Taliban resumed attacks on district centres with at least seven large-scale assaults on urban areas and several on outskirts of provincial capitals; including 20 Sept attack on Afghan security forces convoy outside Maidan Shar, Wardak province (centre) that killed 31 soldiers and 22 Sept raid on Maruf district centre, Kandahar province (south) that killed at least 20 soldiers and wounded 20 others. Fighting intensified in northern regions and southern provinces of Kandahar and Uruzgan, including series of attacks in latter’s Gizab district 17-22 Sept, while clashes continued on Shibergan to Mazar highway in Jawzjan province (north). Govt claimed its forces remained in “active defence” posture but deployed troops to contested areas and continued to conduct airstrikes that caused civilian casualties, including killing dozens of militants and at least ten civilians in Kunduz province (north west) 19 Sept. Govt made progress with political appointments after Abdullah did not object to President Ghani’s 31 Aug decree nomination of several cabinet members; however, concerns continued over underlying Ghani-Abdullah tensions and role that Ghani-controlled state ministry for peace, ostensibly under purview of Abdullah’s High Council, would play in peace process.
Intra-Afghan dialogue remained delayed while violence persisted across country. Following 3 Aug end of Eid holiday ceasefire between Taliban and govt, several attacks occurred, which govt blamed on Taliban but militants did not claim: militants 8 Aug attacked govt base on outskirts of Ghazni city (south east), killing seven Afghan security forces and wounding at least 12, while ten militants died during attack; militant suicide attack in Farah city (south west) on vehicle of deputy provincial police chief killed four police officers and wounded 15 people 12 Aug. Fighting intensified in northern regions, where Taliban did claim several attacks, including one on govt-sponsored militia in Takhar province (north east), killing nine militia members. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) 2-3 Aug carried out major coordinated attack on prison in Jalalabad city, Nangarhar (east), leading to 29 deaths and escape of hundreds of prisoners; although IS-KP claimed attack, govt officials blamed Taliban, who strenuously denied accusation. Attacks on activists and politicians increased: notably, in capital Kabul, unidentified attackers 15 Aug attempted to assassinate MP, women’s rights activist and member of govt’s intra-Afghan team Fawzia Koofi; bomb 19 Aug killed ministerial official involved in Doha meetings between govt and Taliban. Despite international hopes intra-Afghan dialogue could begin in Aug, peace process remained delayed amid Taliban violence and govt blocking release of final several-hundred prisoners; President Ghani convened 7-9 Aug Loya Jirga (traditional assembly of influential figures) in Kabul over issue of final several hundred prisoners, with govt claiming prisoners guilty of crimes including terrorist attacks and drug trafficking; Jirga 9 Aug voted to release prisoners amid concerns of Australia and France, both of which reportedly oppose release of several prisoners accused of killing their citizens. Domestic political stasis continued with tensions between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah over appointments including positions in newly-created High Council of National Reconciliation; Ghani reportedly objected to Abdullah’s nomination of Minister of Economy Mustafa Mastoor for position of State Minister for Peace. Ghani 29 Aug named some 40 individuals to council, but Abdullah 31 Aug said president did not have authority to appoint people to body, which he heads.
Month saw deadly attacks on both sides; Taliban’s ceasefire and govt’s release of prisoners in later part of month raised prospects intra-Afghan peace process could start in Aug. Despite international expectations intra-Afghan dialogue could begin in July, peace process remained on hold for most of month with attacks on both sides and delays in further govt release of prisoners. Taliban intensified attacks on major highways in north, including assault along Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif highway in Sar-e Pul province 7-14 July and clashes on Shibergan-to Mazar highway in Jawzjan province and Kabul-Kunduz highway in Baghlan province (north). While Taliban continued to refrain from attacks on large cities, some major attacks took place. Notably, Taliban 13 July bombed govt intelligence agency in Aybak, capital of Samangan province (north), killing ten and injuring over 50, in first high-profile Taliban-claimed attack on provincial capital since Feb U.S.-Taliban agreement; also launched 13-17 July series of suicide vehicles bombings in Kandahar (south) and Wardak (centre) provinces, with group justifying attacks as “retaliations” for violations of agreement by govt forces, blaming U.S. for not preventing govt attacks. Meanwhile, govt increased airstrikes against suspected Taliban targets with reported high civilian toll; govt air raids 22 July reportedly killed some 45 people, including civilians, in Kham Zaiarat area, Herat province (west); U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalizad next day condemned airstrikes as well as “recent Taliban attacks”, urging “all sides to contain the violence”. Taliban 18 July reshuffled negotiating team and restructured political office in Doha ahead of future talks, incorporating figures from differing wings of movement. Domestic political stasis continued despite President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah’s May agreement to form inclusive govt; Ghani 18 July reappointed hardline interior and defence ministers who hold tough stance toward Taliban; many provincial governors and ministerial positions remained unfilled. In major step forward and following U.S. pressure, Taliban 28 July announced second three-day ceasefire for Eid holiday and govt responded, declaring final hundreds prisoners of total 5,000 to be released, raising prospect intra-Afghan dialogue could begin in August.
U.S. pressure led to incremental progress in peace process, raising prospect of long-awaited intra-Afghan talks starting in July, while violence persisted as new govt appointments stalled. Amid U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad’s continued diplomatic efforts – including 7 June meetings with Taliban’s deputy leader in Doha and Pakistan's chief of army staff in Islamabad – Taliban refrained from major attacks on govt forces or large cities while govt continued to release prisoners, reportedly bringing total Taliban fighters released to date to 4,000; moves on both sides raised hopes for intra-Afghan talks to begin in July. Following Taliban-govt ceasefire late May, Taliban militants rejected ceasefire extension but reportedly communicated to U.S. their willingness to continue period of “reduced violence”; decrease in Taliban violence uneven across country: provinces of Balkh (north) and Faryab (north east) recorded reduced violence throughout month, while several provinces saw unchanging or increasing levels of conflict, including Kapisa (north east), Khost (east), Zabul (south) and Wardak and Ghazni (centre); govt late month released casualty figures showing several hundred security forces killed per week, controversially claiming these to be a record high. Taliban appeared to shift tactics with uptick in roadside bombs, targeted killings and ambush shootings, while continuing abductions and running of checkpoints. Market bombing in Sangin district, Helmand province (south), 29 June killed at least 23 civilians; Taliban and govt blaming each other. Despite May agreement between President Ghani and main opponent Abdullah Abdullah to form inclusive govt, domestic political stasis continued; new govt yet to appoint half of cabinet, Abdullah and allies did not submit list of preferred candidates while Ghani has already filled his share of posts with acting appointees. Pakistan 6 June appointed diplomat Muhammad Sadiq as special envoy on Afghanistan (see Pakistan). Amid concerns over conflict hindering COVID-19 response, UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan 21 June released report detailing 12 deliberate attacks affecting healthcare personnel and facilities 11 March-23 May; report attributed responsibility of eight targeted attacks to Taliban and three attacks to govt forces, while May attack on Kabul hospital remained unattributed; local media reported severe mismanagement of foreign aid for tackling pandemic.
Amid concerns for peace process, Eid al-Fitr holiday brought some respite, with brief ceasefire between Taliban and Afghan govt forces and periods of reduced violence after initial spike in deadly attacks and sharp increase in civilian casualties mid-month. Afghan forces early May resumed high-intensity operations against Taliban in several provinces including Balkh (north), Ghanzi and Laghman (both east). Following 12 May terrorist attacks on hospital in capital Kabul that killed at least 24 and on funeral in Nangarhar (east) that killed some 32, President Ghani same day said govt forces would resume offensive operations against all insurgent groups; Taliban denied responsibility for attacks while Islamic State-Khorasan Province claimed funeral bombing. Taliban 14 May exploded suicide car bomb in Gardez city, Paktia (east), killing at least five, making it first Taliban-claimed suicide attack in a provincial capital since Sept 2019. Taliban night of 19 May attacked Kunduz provincial capital (north), assaulting at least seventeen security posts around strategic city, at least one soldier and eleven militants killed; hours after attack, Afghan air force bombed hospital in nearby Taliban territory. Unidentified armed groups 20 May attacked mosques in areas with Taliban presence including in Paktia and Khost (east), killing over a dozen. U.S. military action remained at low-level, while U.S. officials publicly reiterated commitment to draw down to 8,600 troops by 15 July as per U.S.-Taliban Feb agreement. Conflict reportedly dipped in some areas, including north east and north west, during Ramadan that ended 23 May. In surprising move, Taliban 24 May announced three-day ceasefire to mark Eid al-Fitr holiday; govt responded they would observe ceasefire and Ghani pledged to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners; both gestures appeared spurred by U.S. diplomatic pressure. Both sides followed Eid ceasefire with unannounced periods of reduced violence, increasing speculation intra-Afghan negotiations may soon be possible. Ghani and main opponent Abdullah Abdullah 17 May signed deal to form inclusive govt that will see Ghani remain president, both to choose equal number of ministers and Abdullah to lead any peace talks with Taliban.
Amid ongoing domestic political crisis, violence in the north, north east and central provinces bordering Kabul continued at high levels. Clashes between Afghan forces and the Taliban in Balkh (north) and Takhar (north east) provinces 19 April killed over 25 security forces, while Taliban early April recaptured Yamgan district in Badakhshan Province (north east). Govt offensive advanced in Khamab district, Jawzjan province (north). In many other areas, Afghan forces remained in defensive posture, notably in Maidan Wardak province (centre) where small-scale Taliban attacks continued and focused on blocking govt access to Kabul-Ghazni highway. Levels of violence dropped in south due to labour-intensive cultivation of poppy harvest and in west due to seasonal flooding, and outbreak of COVID-19 in Herat province. Taliban yet to announce traditional spring offensive, often broadcast late-April; lack of announcement suspected to be part of non-public terms of Feb U.S.-Taliban agreement. Intra-Afghan negotiations remained stalled; Taliban and govt made limited progress on prisoner release, with totals yet to reach 5000 Taliban members and 1000 govt officials as stipulated in Feb agreement as pre-condition for intra-Afghan talks. U.S. military action such as airstrikes and night raids reportedly continued to decrease in volume. Intelligence service 4 April announced arrest of emir of Islamic State-Khorasan Province and other top members, though details of operations inconsistent. Following govt measures to contain COVID-19 spread, including restriction of intra-provincial travel, lockdown of urban centres and public health measures, unemployment rose and remittance wages fell, with scarcity of food and other basic commodities driving up market prices dramatically. Domestic political crisis continued following President Ghani and main opponent Abdullah Abdullah March standoff over establishment of new government; both sides yet to reach comprise despite reports of progress toward a deal that would see Abdullah play leadership role in peace process and preside over consultative council of political figures.
Levels of violence in rural areas peaked again after Feb “reduction in violence” period did not extend into March, while intra-Afghan negotiations that could lead to a ceasefire were delayed. Following Feb U.S.-Taliban deal and end of reduced violence period, Taliban resumed intense military pressure on Afghan security forces in rural areas, including 19 March attack in Zabul province (south) that left over twenty Afghan security forces killed; Taliban carried out series of attacks in Balkh province (north), leading to repeated shut down and impact on northern highway; levels of violence in country highest in Kandahar province (south) in first part of March. Insurgents continued to refrain from major attacks in urban areas. Mass abductions reported in Maidan Wardak, Uruzgan, Kunduz and elsewhere. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) resumed large-scale attacks in capital Kabul including 6 March attack on Shia mosque, targeting Hazara community, with gunmen killing at least 32 people; IS-KP claimed responsibility for five rockets fired 9 March at Presidential Palace during President Ghani’s inauguration ceremony, no major casualties reported, and 25 March attack on Sikh religious complex, killing 25. Domestic political crisis continued with establishment of parallel govts; following controversial 2019 presidential elections, Ghani (whom official results declared as winner in Feb) and his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah (who continued to claim results were fraudulent) 9 March held concurrent inauguration ceremonies in adjacent wings of Presidential Palace complex in Kabul; representatives of international community mostly attended Ghani’s inauguration, while northern and western Afghan powerbrokers joined Abdullah’s ceremony; both figures refrained from action that might escalate political crisis into armed conflict. Amid delay, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad conducted diplomatic efforts in attempt to broker compromise between Ghani and Abdullah; Sec State Pompeo 23 March visited Kabul, announcing US$1bn cut to aid amid deadlock and saying U.S. “deeply regrets” both sides inability to “agree on an inclusive govt”; days after, govt formation of an inclusive negotiating team and govt-Taliban dialogue on prisoners progressed, albeit still limited.
Amid significant drop in violence, U.S. and Taliban signed historic agreement to end long-running conflict, paving way for future intra-Afghan talks. U.S. and Taliban representatives 21 Feb said they had reached deal on gradual U.S. military withdrawal in exchange for Taliban’s assurances to cut links with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and join intra-Afghan negotiations; agreement contingent on successful completion of seven-day period of “reduction in violence”, which started 22 Feb. Agreement signed 29 Feb in Doha presaging expected mass prisoner exchange, and start of intra-Afghan negotiations, although basic aspects of talks including date, location and facilitator remained undecided while neither govt nor Taliban announced representatives. Conflict activity significantly dropped countrywide during reduction in violence period. Taliban-related violence continued up to 22 Feb especially in northern rural areas: govt blamed Taliban for 11 Feb suicide attack in Charah-e-Qambar area of capital Kabul, which left four members of security forces and two civilians dead, insurgents denied responsibility; Taliban 3 Feb ambushed pro-govt militia in provincial capital Sar-i-Pul (north), killing its commander and five others; Taliban 10 Feb ambushed convoy of security forces travelling north from Kabul, killing three police officers and wounding 33 members of security forces in twelve-hour clash; Taliban abducted and then killed a govt employee and a former jihadi commander in Kunduz province (north) 2 Feb and a police officer in Faryab province (north) 7 Feb. Member of govt security forces 9 Feb killed two U.S. special forces soldiers in Nangarhar province (east). Prior to reduction in violence, U.S. airstrikes continued to cause numerous civilian casualties including 14 Feb airstrike on moving vehicle in Nangarhar, reportedly killing eight. Independent Election Commission 18 Feb announced final results of contested Sept 2019 presidential election, declaring President Ghani winner with 50.64% of vote, thereby avoiding run-off; same day, main opponent Abdullah Abdullah – officially declared runner-up with 39.52% – rejected result and vowed to form parallel govt, publicly encouraged by VP Rashid Dostum; opposition supporters end-Feb carried out protests in provincial capitals in north while govt deployed increased security forces in Kabul.