April 20, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Afghanistan’s Endless Fighting Season
The April 19 suicide truck bombing in downtown Kabul targeted the government department responsible for providing security to high-level officials in a crowded area of the capital. The attack, which killed at least 30 and injured hundreds more, was the deadliest attack in Kabul since 2011. It sent the message that the government is not only unable to protect civilians, but its own security services as well. The capital has been relatively quiet in terms of attacks in recent months, though much of the rest of the country faces constant pressure from the Taliban as well as a resilient al-Qaeda and, to a lesser degree, the so-called Islamic State.
On April 12, the Taliban announced the resumption of the annual fighting season, naming it ‘Operation Omari’ after the group's deceased leader, Mullah Omar. The notion of a fighting season in Afghanistan is more a tradition than an accurate description, given that the fighting hardly pauses in the off-season. Operation Omari is the 15th fighting season since the Taliban lost control in 2001. Continuing a long negative trend, Afghanistan enters the summer months with a markedly worse security situation than in the previous year.
While much has been made of the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, the far greater threat to the country remains the Taliban. The group has survived the controversy surrounding the delayed acknowledgment of the death of Mullah Omar, and now holds, controls, or threatens more territory than at any time since 2001. Kunduz in the north remains particularly vulnerable to Taliban assaults, while long-troubled Helmand and Kandahar in the southwest continue to be strongholds for the extremist group.
Al-Qaeda, which never left Afghanistan despite claims to the contrary, has held on to pockets of influence and power in some eastern provinces, such as Kunar, Nuristan, and Paktika. Last October’s raid in Kandahar against what was described by U.S. military officials as a massive al-Qaeda training camp raised concerns that a group long-described as marginalized by the U.S. was actually thriving, and continues to do so in 2016.
The current U.S. military capabilities in Afghanistan are primarily focused on counterterrorism, while NATO continues to provide training and equipment to the struggling Afghanistan National Army (ANA). The U.S. will come to the aid of ANA troops, but it is not conducting offensive operations against the Taliban. This policy might shift as pressure builds on the ANA and more of the country is threatened. As in Iraq, the train-and-equip strategy of the U.S. and its partners in Afghanistan has been a lengthy and costly effort with insufficient positive results. And as with Iraq, the U.S. military will likely see its combat operations in Afghanistan increase in the foreseeable future.
With continued attacks in places like Kunduz, the Taliban will seek to destabilize the fragile national government by striking in the heart of the government’s power. The Ring of Steel defense system around central Kabul has been effective in reducing mass casualty attacks such as the April 19 bombing, but clearly some component of the system failed in detecting what was likely a significant truck bomb. Furthermore, no static defense can hold when so much of the surrounding area is outside of the government’s effective control.
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