BACKGROUND: During a week in January, the Taliban and ISKP carried out at least four large-scale attacks – three in Kabul and one in Jalalabad – that claimed the lives of 140 people. On January 20, Taliban fighters in army uniforms laid siege to Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. Twenty people, including 14 foreigners were killed in the 13-hour gun-battle. Five days later, ISKP suicide bombers attacked the Jalalabad office of the international NGO Save the Children Fund, and killed at least 6 people, including four staff. The Taliban struck again on January 27; a militant drove an explosives-filled ambulance into the heart of Kabul and detonated the explosives on a busy street to kill at least 103 people and injure as many as 235. A day later, eleven soldiers were killed when ISKP militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles attacked an army unit guarding a military academy in Kabul.
The January attacks underscore yet again the capacity of the Taliban and the ISKP to attack even tightly guarded facilities in the capital. Security arrangements in Kabul were strengthened in the wake of the suicide bombing just outside Kabul’s diplomatic district on May 31 last year, which left 150 people dead and 400 others injured. The heightened security notwithstanding, a Taliban suicide bomber struck just outside the Kabul military academy five months later. Security at the military facility was tightened further; however, this did not deter either the Taliban or the ISKP.
Over the past year, Taliban and ISKP hideouts have been subjected to relentless aerial bombing by the U.S. Between January 1 and October 31 last year, the U.S. Air Force dropped 3,554 bombs on Taliban hideouts – three times the number dropped in 2016 and four times that in 2015. In April, it used the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), the largest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, to pulverize ISKP tunnel complexes in Nangarhar. The January attacks indicate that the U.S. aerial bombing of Taliban and ISKP hideouts did not dent their capacities or confidence.
IMPLICATIONS: The attacks came just weeks after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the decision to cut off almost US$ 2 billion in aid to Pakistan for its continued support to the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani Network, prompting speculation in Kabul about whether the recent upsurge in violence was a fallout of the U.S. decision. An unnamed Afghan official attributed the wave of attacks to “Pakistan pushing back against the new U.S. strategy” and described it as “a small taste of what it’s capable of.” An angry Afghan government swung into action. On January 30, it dispatched a high-power delegation led by Afghan Interior Minister Wais Barmak to Islamabad, where “undeniable evidence that the attacks were planned there [in Pakistan]” was shared with Pakistani officials, Afghan intelligence Chief Masoom Stanekzai said. This included a list of names of people involved in the attacks and of Pakistani madrasas where the attacks were planned.
In previous years, the Taliban would wait for the snow to melt and mountain passes to open before intensifying attacks as part of its annual “spring offensive.” This year it did not wait for spring to escalate violence. Trump’s tweet on January 1, announcing the aid cut-off to Pakistan could have resulted in the Taliban striking early.
The January attacks in Kabul confirm that competition between the Taliban and the ISKP is heating up. Since early 2015 when the ISKP announced its entry into Afghanistan, the two have clashed violently on several occasions. While the ISKP was successful in drawing some disgruntled Taliban commanders it has not been able to extend its influence beyond Nangarhar province. Since July last year, it has signaled an interest in targeting Kabul. Attacks with a large number of casualties in Kabul are rewarding for those seeking to terrorize the population, drawing substantial attention in the media and thus serving to attract recruits keen to join the group perceived as most potent of the two. Importantly, attacks in Kabul are likely to impress foreign governments and others funding their violent operations. With the recent attacks, Kabul has emerged the main battleground in the Taliban-ISKP rivalry.
Violent attacks in Kabul are also useful to deepen the wedge between the capital’s residents and the Ashraf Ghani government. A growing number of civilians in the capital are questioning Ghani’s capacity to provide them with basic security. They are wondering what use is a government that cannot defend the capital from repeated terror attacks. The prestige of the state in the eyes of Kabul’s residents has been undermined by the recent attacks and public confidence in the Ghani government is at an all-time low. This is not a new development but an alarming one in a country that is struggling to build democratic state institutions.
The Taliban and the ISKP are likely to escalate attacks in Kabul in the coming months especially as spring approaches, when the movement of fighters from Pakistan to Afghanistan will become easier. The Ghani government, whose credibility has plunged seriously, could use terror attacks in Kabul to justify postponing upcoming elections to parliament and district councils. Postponement of elections will weaken Afghanistan’s already fragile democracy.
The impact of the Kabul attacks on Trump’s Afghan strategy will be keenly observed in Afghanistan and abroad, especially the neighborhood. On August 21, Trump announced his “new” strategy to boost the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. The scaling up of military operations against the Taliban and ISKP were widely viewed as an attempt to convince them that they cannot win on the battlefield. With their attacks in Kabul in January, the Taliban and ISKP sent a corresponding signal to the U.S.. However, the recent attacks are unlikely to convince Trump to change tracks. Consequently, a serious escalation of the conflict is to be expected this year.
CONCLUSIONS: The recent attacks in Kabul and Jalalabad underscore the fact that the Taliban cannot be defeated on the battlefield. In the circumstances, the surge in troops proposed by the Trump administration could end up being another exercise in futility. The attacks confirm that contrary to U.S. claims, the capacities of the Taliban and the ISKP are growing. The outlook for Afghanistan has never been bleaker. The U.S.-led military operations against the Taliban in the 2000s could not defeat the Taliban. Neither the surge in American troops in 2010 nor the draw-down in 2014 ended the fighting. The U.S.’s acceleration of aerial bombing has not worked to deter the Taliban or the ISKP from carrying out high-profile attacks. Thus, the military option to end the insurgency has clearly not worked. A negotiation process that includes the Taliban seems the only way out. Space may have opened up for the Chinese, who are mediating a peace process that includes the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the Taliban. The question is whether the Taliban are interested.
Image source: By Daniel Wilkinson (U.S. Department of State) via Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons, accessed on 3.13. 2018