By Caitlin Forrest with Harleen Gambhir
ISW last published its Afghanistan Threat Assessment on February 23, 2016.
The ANSF is unprepared to counter the Taliban militants’ summer campaign. Northern warlords will take advantage of Taliban militants’ gains to establish themselves as security providers and gain leverage against the fragile National Unity Government.
Readiness gaps challenge the assumptions behind the U.S.’s current plan to draw down from 9,800 to 5,500 troops by the end of January 2017. General John W. Nicholson took command of U.S. and NATO Forces in Afghanistan from General John Campbell on March 2. On April 4, GEN Nicholson stated the U.S. is behind schedule to train a self-sufficient Afghan security force. The ANSF will be particularly pressed as the Taliban intensify their operations under the banner of their summer campaign, “Operation Omari,” which they announced on April 12. Taliban militants seek to degrade the ANSF, discourage foreign presence, and demonstrate the weakness of the unity government during Operation Omari. They will achieve these objectives through increased insider attacks, assassination campaigns, and attacks against Western and diplomatic targets in Kabul City and beyond. Taliban militants also seek to gain control of additional territory, for which they have already set conditions over the winter.
The National Unity Government ordered the ANSF on April 6 to adopt a more offensive strategy by consolidating forces in strategic areas instead of defending static check posts, a shift supported by NATO forces. Preliminary applications of this strategy allowed Taliban militants to solidify control in the areas abandoned by the ANSF, specifically in Musa Qal’ah and Now Zad Districts in Helmand and Shahid-e Hassas District in Uruzgan in late February and early March. This consolidation will likely mitigate actual and potential manpower losses. It will not counter the Taliban militants’ summer offensive, as militants currently threaten Helmand’s provincial capital Lashkar Gah despite the ANSF’s attempts to reinforce the city in late February.
Taliban militants are also consolidating power under leading Taliban commander Mullah Akhtar Mansour. He has reconciled with the late Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s brother and son, who originally challenged Akhtar Mansour’s claim to power. Haqqani Network leader and Mansour’s deputy emir Sirajuddin Haqqani allegedly brokered this mediation, indicating the Haqqani Network’s stake in a unified Taliban front. This reconciliation follows Pakistan’s rumored arrest of leading dissident Taliban commander Mullah Rasul Akhund on March 22. The mediation and possible arrest suggest that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) aim to present a united Taliban militant force this summer.
Northern warlords and political opposition groups are increasing pressure on the fragile National Unity Government in the face of these security challenges, hindering the administration’s ability to respond to insurgent offensives. Northern warlords are taking advantage of this pressure to extract concessions. General Atta Noor and General Abdul Rashid Dostum preemptively activated their competing personal militias in Balkh, Faryab, and Jowzjan Provinces in late February and early March in order to counter the Taliban militants’ summer campaign. Atta and Dostum seek to establish themselves as leading security providers, challenging national institutions and one another. Political opposition groups like the Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council (APSC) and the newly formed National Solidarity parliamentary bloc continue to criticize the National Unity Government for its inability to provide security or enact electoral reforms, pressuring the Ghani-Abdullah administration. President Ashraf Ghani has responded to this criticism by dismissing several significant government officials in late March in a struggle over cabinet composition and electoral reform with CEO and rival Abdullah Abdullah. Atta is Abdullah Abdullah’s primary backer, and his saber rattling is aimed at President Ghani. Dostum, the sitting First Vice President, recently reconciled with Ashraf Ghani and returned to participating actively in government. He has mobilized to counter Atta, as well as the Taliban.
1. Militants attacked heavily fortified areas in Kabul City, launching four explosive attacks against security and diplomatic targets from March 25 to 29. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan militants also indicated intent to attack Kabul City by claiming two unconfirmed attacks in southern Kabul on April 6. These attacks will likely increase following the announcement of the Taliban militants’ summer offensive “Operation Omari” on April 12.
2. Clearing operations continued to displace ISIS Wilayat Khorasan militants from Nangarhar Province into other eastern provinces. ISIS’s militants reportedly moved to Sar Kani District, Kunar Province following ANSF clearing operations in Nangarhar Province in late March. ISIS militants also conducted their first attack in Ghazni Province north of Ghazni City on March 11 and reportedly continued recruiting in Ghazni and Zabul Provinces, including Gelan, Jaghuri, and Khak-e Afghan Districts in early April. Some ISIS militants remain in southern Nangarhar despite a significant increase in U.S. airstrikes and ANSF clearing operations, with some allegedly pledging allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour on April 11.
3. ANSF retook Reg-e Khan Neshin District Center in Helmand Province with support from US airstrikes on March 28 after Taliban militants briefly captured it on March 15, demonstrating the effectiveness of ANSF operations combined with U.S. airstrikes. Taliban militants control seven districts in Helmand Province, however, and are contesting areas surrounding the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. ISW has updated this version of its Afghanistan map to reflect Taliban militants’ longstanding control of Baghran District Center in Helmand, which is now among ISW’s researched districts. The map now also reflects Taliban militants’ effective control of Kajaki District Center, as the ANSF is reportedly unable to maneuver beyond a fixed position at the nearby Kajaki dam.
4. Rival Taliban militant factions participated in large-scale clashes in Shindand District, Herat Province. Shindand District is a launching pad for militant operations in western Afghanistan. The district is currently a stronghold for leading dissident Taliban commander Mullah Rasul Akhund’s faction.
5. Rival Northern Warlords First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Balkh Provincial Governor Mohammad Atta Noor conducted competing operations against Taliban militants in Faryab, Jowzjan and Balkh Provinces in late February and early March. Competition between the rival warlords intensified when Dostum and Atta’s supporters staged protests and counter-protests in Mazar-e Sharif and Maimanah Cities on March 22 and 23. Competition between these northern warlords reflects competition between President Ghani, linked with Ghani, and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, whom Atta backs, and challenges the legitimacy of the National Unity Government by strengthening militias conducting operations outside of government control.
6. Taliban militants recaptured Dand-e Ghori area, Pul-e Khumri District, Baghlan Province, returning to the area on March 24 after the ANSF conducted multiple clearing operations. Dand-e Ghori lies on the main road connecting northern Baghlan and Balkh provincial capitals Pul-e Khumri and Mazar-e Sharif and was originally captured by Taliban militants in last year’s spring offensive. Control of this area enables militants to attack Pul-e Khumri City and disrupt travel to Mazar-e Sharif. Taliban militants may have seized the area as a means of demonstrating Pashtun strength in response to protests and militia operations by Uzbek Dostum and Tajik Atta. The capture of Dand-e Ghori immediately followed protests in Mazar-e Sharif and Maimanah on March 22 and 23. Militants also attacked Dowlatabad City in late March in Faryab after Dostum’s operations in the province.