Afghan security forces have launched a major counter-offensive to take back Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents seized control of the northern city. The insurgents reportedly launched a surprise dawn attack on the city on Monday and by evening had succeeded in capturing the provincial police headquarters and the governors compound. After driving Afghan forces back to an airport on the outskirts of Kunduz, the insurgents raised their white standard over the city’s central square and freed hundreds of Taliban fighters imprisoned in a nearby gaol. It is the second time this year that the Taliban have attacked Kunduz, a strategically important city defended almost entirely by Afghan forces since 2013, when security for the region was transferred to them by NATO. it is also the first time in fourteen years that the Taliban have managed to gain control of a major urban centre.
Ayoub Salangi, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister, has announced that security forces are ready to retake the city. Heavy fighting has since been reported, with Afghan soldiers reclaiming strategic parts of the city. In support of these efforts, US forces have also conducted an air strike against entrenched Taliban positions. Casualties on both sides are believed to be high but precise numbers have yet to be disclosed.
In a message issued earlier today, the Taliban’s new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour said that President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government should admit defeat. “These conquests are result of almighty Allah’s support and the mujahideen (fighters) sacrifices,” he said. “Therefore, officials in Kabul have to admit their defeat with courage.” The Taliban leader’s comments coincided with the first anniversary of Ghani’s administration, which is likely to experience further setbacks as it attempts to revive the stalled peace negotiations.
A strategically important transport hub connecting Kabul in the south, Mazar-e-Sharif in the west and Tajikistan to the north, Kunduz was a key Taliban stronghold before the 2001 invasion. It is considered a gateway to the north and a known transit point for opium and heroin smuggling to Central Asia.
Last week, years of fierce speculation over the whereabouts of Mullah Mohammed Omar ended when the Taliban leader was declared dead by the Afghan government. After initially denying the claim, the Taliban named his successor, Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansoor. A founding member of the Taliban, Mansoor knew Omar and Osama bin Laden personally, has a reputation for being a moderate and is known to have lent his support to the peace process. Many see this as a positive move for the group, a decision that will help bring more than a decade of war to an end. There are, however, numerous problems which he will need to overcome in order make this a reality.
Mansoor is believed to have joined the Taliban in 1994, after the insurgent group gained control of Kandahar province. In the late 1990s he served as the Taliban’s aviation minister and fled to Pakistan after the US invasion in 2001. He was appointed deputy to Mullah Omar in 2013. As secretive as his notoriously camera-shy predecessor, no picture or video of the new Taliban chief has made its way into the public domain.
As Omar’s deputy, Mansoor has had years of experience managing the Taliban, experience which should have stood him in good stead for his new leadership role. However, the announcement that he would be taking over from Mullah Omar has shaken the Taliban to its core. To begin with, there has been much criticism over the way that Omar’s death was covered up, not just from the rank and file but from senior members of the Taliban. Omar’s former personal secretary, Tayeb Agha, has resigned from his position as head of a political office in Doha in protest, saying that the coverup was a “historical mistake”. In a statement issued at the time of his resignation, Agha implied that he had not been made aware of Omar’s death until very recently, an indication of how closely guarded this secret was and how deeply it has effected the Taliban’s core followers.
Another factor that will have to be considered is the effect that Omar’s death will have on the insurgency. Although Omar hasn’t made a public appearance since the fall of his government in 2001, his reputation as Amir al-Momineen (leader of the faithful) has played a vital role in preserving the group’s unity and sense of overall direction. Without it, Mansoor will have to find another way of holding the group together, a task made more difficult by the seductive appeal of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which has in recent months succeeded in luring away many disenfranchised members of the Taliban.
A suicide attack has torn through a crowded market place in Faryab, a province in northwestern Afghanistan, killing more than two dozen people and injuring many more. Initial reports of the attack, which took place in the Almar district, have so far been unable to pinpoint the precise number of casualties, with various Afghan officials placing the number of fatalities between 15 and 25 and the number of injured between 32 and 38. At the moment of going to press it is believed that all of the casualties were civilians except for one soldier and two police officers.
According to Naqibullah Fayeq, a provincial parliamentarian, the bomber – who was riding a motorcycle at the time – detonated his explosive when security forces stationed in the market stopped him to check his identity papers. The attack occurred at 11am local time on a weekly shopping day when the market was crowded with people. Deputy provincial police chief Baryalai Basharyar said that the “target of the attacker was military forces that were present in the area but the majority of the victims were innocent civilians.” So devastating was the explosion that Faryab’s one small provincial hospital and two clinics were rapidly overwhelmed, necessitating the transfer of many victims to hospitals in Balkh and other nearby provinces.
While previous years have seen the Taliban mount annual attacks on provinces to the south and east of the country, the militant group has in recent weeks launched a series of increasingly daring attacks in the north. In late June, Taliban militants captured the Chandara district in the northeast province of Kunduz after a protracted gun battle with Afghan security forces. While security forces were able to regain control of Chardara in a counter-offensive shortly thereafter, reports began to emerge that the militants were planning to push closer to the centre of the province. Also in June, Taliban militants snatched control of Yamgan district in Badakhshan Province away from Afghan security forces. These strategic victories have caught the Afghan government off guard and it has responded by re-arming militia groups to assist the regular soldiers defend threatened geographies.
So far, this and other initiatives have not succeeded in substantially reducing the Taliban’s capacity for insurgency. They continue to be active throughout Faryab where they control many important transport corridors to neighbouring provinces. In the weeks to come, Afghan vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum – who has been overseeing military operations in the area from his home province of Jowzjan – is set to lead a high-ranking delegation to Faryab in an attempt to resolve some of the issues that have contributed to the deteriorating security situation in the north. Should this prove successful, the Taliban’s territorial ambitions in the north might be thwarted long enough for the Afghan military to regroup and launch a counter-offensive, reclaiming territory lost during the spring/summer fighting season.
A delegation from the High Peace Council of Afghanistan has travelled to Pakistan to take part in historic negotiations with the Taliban, raising hopes of a breakthrough between the two groups even as the spring/summer fighting season gathers momentum and insurgent violence escalates.
Following a series of informal talks held by the two sides in various countries, the Afghan delegation met with with their Taliban counterparts on 8 July in Muree, a resort near the Pakistani capital Islamabad. Afghanistan and the United States have previously urged Pakistan to host trilateral talks with the Taliban, as they believe that Islamabad’s influence over the militant group might prove useful in expediting the peace process. It is with this in mind that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has sought out ways of improving diplomatic relations with Pakistan, particularly in regards to increased security and intelligence cooperation. While these efforts have been widely criticised in Afghanistan, Islamabad has – by agreeing to host the talks – shown itself to be 1) susceptible to Ghani’s overtures and 2) committed to the restoration of regional stability.
So far, very little information has been revealed about the nature of the talks or the identities of the participants. On the Afghan side, the four-man team is said to include deputy foreign minister Hekmat Karzai, the nephew of former president Hamid Karzai. As the High Peace Council is supposed to operate independently from the government, Karzai’s inclusion in the negotiating team may been seen as an attempt by Ashraf Ghani to placate the former president, who has fiercely criticised Ghani’s attempts to normalise relations with Pakistan. On the Taliban side, Pakistani intelligence officials have confirmed that the negotiating team is made up of three men, whose identities have yet to be disclosed. Finally, acting as observers, are representatives of the Chinese and American governments.
While the talks have been greeted with expressions of cautious optimism, the road ahead lies strewn with obstacles, chief amongst which is the Taliban itself. Riven by disunity and unwilling to take orders from a leadership in exile, the Taliban is no longer a coherent insurgent group. A Taliban spokesperson has recently come forward saying that the individuals contracting the negotiations in Pakistan have not been authorised to do so, as the office in Qatar is the only channel through which such discussions can be held. Evidently, there is an ongoing rivalry between those members of the Taliban who want to fight and those who want to talk.
A further complication, and one which will certainly occupy the minds of those present in Islamabad, is the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as a rival insurgent group in Afghanistan. Over the past month, IS militants are believed to have seized territory from the Taliban in six of the twenty one Nangarhar districts. Moreover, witnesses claim that many of the IS fighters are former Taliban militants who have become disillusioned with the group’s failure to reestablish its authority in Kabul. Should this state of affairs be allowed to continue indefinitely, the Taliban runs the risk of complete disintegration. While it is impossible to say at this stage what the outcome of of the talks will be, there is no doubt that the prospect of becoming a spent force will be an important – if not deciding – factor in the militants’ decision making process.
Reports and rumours of disaffected Afghan and Pakistani Taliban insurgents pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group have been circulating since late September last year. In southern Zabul and Helmand provinces, Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Taliban commander recently killed in an air strike, was alleged to have been recruiting fighters on behalf of IS. In Kunar and Farah provinces, jihadi training camps have been established while in Ghazni and Paktika provinces, Afghan government officials have announced that hundreds of IS-affiliated foreign fighters posing as refugees have been fighting under the black flag. Although many of these claims have been hard to verify independently, sufficient evidence has emerged in recent months to support the belief that the IS wish to expand their operations into Southern Asia. It is, however, unclear to what extent they have succeeded in doing so.
In response to tactical losses in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has recently been pursuing a strategy designed to preserve its operational capability from destruction. While its primary objective is to defend the territories currently under its control in Iraq and Syria, forays into Lebanon, Libya and elsewhere have proven that its territorial ambitions are not limited to a small corner of the Middle East but are on a vast, global scale. In January 2015, IS spokesperson Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami outlined the Islamic State’s agenda in Southern Asia. In a press release published by the Islamic State’s media wing, Al-Furqan, al Adnani announced the so-called caliphate’s expansion to Khorasan— a geopolitical entity which includes part of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, India and China. Meanwhile, In a separate press release which also appeared in the middle of January, former Pakistani Taliban member Shahidullah Shahid revealed the names of the individuals who would take command of various parts of Afghanistan, including the name of the chapter’s leader, Hafez Saeed Khan, a former commander in the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). More recently, the Islamic State announced the creation of Khorasan Shura – a leadership council for Pakistan and Afghanistan which is almost entirely made up of former TTP leaders. By establishing this council, the IS demonstrated its desire to establish influence amongst Pakistani and Afghani jihadis.
In aligning itself with former AfPak militant commanders and local jihadist groups, the Islamic State’s purpose has been twofold: first, it wants to establish a network of individuals who possess highly developed local knowledge and are capable of launching independent military operations; second, it hopes to polarise public opinion against the U.S led coalition, thereby preparing the ground for further IS expansion. However, these objectives have met with some resistance from local insurgent groups. After al Adnani announced the Khorasan expansion, he also called on: “all the mujahideed in Khorasan to join the caravan of the khalifah [caliph] and abandon disunity and factionalism.” In issuing this call to arms, Al-Adnani and the Islamic State may have inadvertently entered into a turf war with the Afghani Taliban. First, long-standing ideological conventions may prevent some Taliban loyalists from accepting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as khalifah because Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Supreme Leader of the Taliban, holds the position of Amir ul-Momimeen (Commander of the Faithful Believers). Second, the Afghan Taliban is a nationalist insurgent group: its chief goal is to overthrow the current Afghan government. In contrast, the Islamic state is a expansionist organisation determined to establish its caliphate. Third, the IS split from al Qaeda, a Taliban ally, in February 2014, making an IS-Taliban joint venture even less plausible.
While increased cooperation between the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State seems unlikely, conditions may be more suitable for greater IS penetration in Pakistan. In the first place, Pakistan has a reputation for fostering the growth and expansion of Sunni militant groups and, unlike Afghanistan, is riven by deep, sectarian cleavages that the profoundly anti-Shiite IS may be able to exploit. Furthermore, Pakistani militants have shown themselves to be more susceptible to IS overtures than their Afghani counterparts, a factor which may result in the ultimate dissolution of the TTP if more and more Taliban commanders and fighters defect. Should the TTP disintegrate, one possible outcome is that the Pakistani government, which continues to use terrorist groups to advance its foreign policy, might bestow their patronage on the Islamic State. Another possibility is that an intra-jihadist struggle will emerge between groups trying to retain their influence and autonomy within the region.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan both face more immediate problems from local insurgent groups, the threat posed by the Islamic State cannot be ignored. Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that the IS cannot gain a foothold in the AfPak region. Otherwise, the expansion of the IS caliphate may continue unabated throughout Eastern Asia.