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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.