Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: August 28, 2016

Taliban militants are successfully expanding their territorial control across several regions of Afghanistan during their 2016 summer offensive, Operation Omari. The ANSF’s counter-offensive, Operation Shafaq has repulsed individual Taliban operations, such as the August offensive to isolate Helmand’s provincial capital, but the ANSF remain unprepared and under-resourced to conduct operations in more than one region simultaneously, despite NATO and U.S. assistance. Taliban offensives continue to limit the Afghan government’s control of terrain, thereby expanding ungoverned and remote areas where extremist networks such as ISIS and al Qaeda can reconstitute. The Afghan unity government faces a political crisis because of deadlines in September imposed by the original agreement through which it came to power. If Afghanistan remains on this course, global extremist organizations will reconstitute their sanctuaries in Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces and pose enduring threats to U.S. national security.

The Taliban’s campaign gained momentum on several fronts in August after a lull coinciding with multiple leadership transitions. Taliban militants launched offensives to control the provincial capitals of Kunduz and Uruzgan Provinces and launched offensives surrounding the provincial capital of Helmand Province, Lashkar Gah. U.S. airstrikes and Afghan commando units appear to have slowed the Taliban militant advance on southern Lashkar Gah City as of August 15, but Taliban militants responded by attacking adjacent districts in Helmand and simultaneously pressuring Kunduz City in the north. The Taliban leverages its dispersed footprint to neutralize the ANSF capability even with U.S. and NATO assistance.

The ANSF’s Operation Shafaq is too geographically constrained and insufficiently resourced to combat the Taliban militants’ dispersed, simultaneous offensives. Operation Shafaq was designed to proceed in three distinct phases; beginning in Kunduz in April, then moving to protect the southern provinces, and most recently shifting to combat ISIS in Nangarhar in mid-July. Taliban militants launched offensives to set conditions to contest Kunduz in the North and Lashkar Gah in the South immediately after the ANSF shifted to disrupt ISIS in Nangarhar. U.S. and Afghan Air Force air strikes and reinforcements from Afghan Commando Units reportedly disrupted the militants’ advance on Lashkar Gah City, the capital of southern Helmand province, and aided in the recapturing of adjacent districts. ANSF counter-offensives in southern Helmand Province are ongoing and have not recaptured all areas lost to Taliban militants between July 29 and August 15. The Resolute Support spokesman U.S. Brigadier General Charles Cleveland announced that 100 U.S. troops were temporarily deployed to bolster the Train, Advise, and Assist mission around Lashkar Gah City on August 22. This deployment demonstrates that the ANSF are not prepared to combat large-scale Taliban militant offensives without direct U.S. assistance.

Taliban militants are exploiting the regionally-focused phases of the ANSF’s Operation Shafaq to reverse gains made by joint U.S.-ANSF operations. Taliban assaults in northern Afghanistan and ISIS militants in the East will likely capitalize on the redistribution of ANSF and U.S. troops to Helmand Province by returning to areas previously cleared by the U.S. and ANSF. Afghan Defense Minister Abdullah Khan Habibi directed security forces to launch a separate counter-offensive in northern Kunduz Province on August 21 due to militants contesting Kunduz City. This new offensive required Afghan National Army Deputy Chief of Staff General Murad Ali Murad to leave Helmand Province in order to lead operations in Kunduz Province, indicating that the ANSF does not have the command structure to lead simultaneous operations in multiple regions. The ANSF’s Operation Shafaq is not designed to hold more than one region at a time, and Taliban militants are exploiting this flaw to weaken the ANSF and improve conditions iteratively as they prepare to amass greater control of terrain.

The Taliban militants’ offensive is requiring the ANSF to deploy and redistribute their limited resources frequently, limiting the Afghan government’s ability to reach remote areas where extremist networks can reconstitute. Three quarters of ANSF soldiers are actively fighting insurgents, making it difficult to rest and refit units. This operational tempo negatively affects the ANSF’s effectiveness and exhausts resources. The frequent transfer of ANSF units between provinces also allows militants to return to areas cleared by security forces once the units relocate. The Taliban militants’ summer offensive is effectively stretching the capabilities of the ANSF and degrading its already low morale. Extremist groups will likely capitalize on the Taliban militants’ exhaustion of the ANSF to carve out their own sanctuaries in eastern Afghanistan. For example, ISIS militants are using their sanctuaries in Nangarhar Province to launch spectacular attacks in Kabul. Additionally, the Haqqani Network is on the offensive in their historic stronghold in Loya Paktia.

The Taliban summer offensive is outpacing the ANSF’s ability to secure the country as the National Unity Government faces a crisis and potential collapse in September. The National Unity Government is facing multiple crises due to its inability to deliver on requirements of the 2014 power sharing agreement. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the Ghani-Abdullah Administration will meet the September 2016 deadline to hold a constitutional Loya Jirga as stipulated by the 2014 agreement or enact electoral reforms before the elections planned for October 2016. Opposition parties will aggressively challenge the Ghani-Abdullah Administration if it does not meet these deadlines. These deadlines coincide with the traditional end of the Taliban militants’ summer campaigns, a phase during which Taliban operations frequently crescendo. Last year, Taliban militants captured Kunduz City in September 2015. The National Unity Government could collapse if they fail to meet these political deadlines.

The numbers in the text below correspond to areas on the accompanying map.

1. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan militants are operating alongside Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants in Jowzjan Province. Security forces arrested the alleged ISIS “shadow governor” of Jowzjan province in Qush Tepah District in early August after a group of ISIS and IMU-affiliated militants clashed with security forces. It is unclear whether ISIS flipped the Taliban shadow governor in the province, or whether local reporting is simply referring to a local ISIS commander. A woman also surrendered to police in the provincial capital on August 16, claiming her husband was pressuring her to travel to Nangarhar to receive training to become a suicide bomber for ISIS.

2. Taliban militants attacked Kunduz city on August 22, the second time during Operation Omari. Militants attacked Kunduz City from three directions and blocked access to the north and south of the city, blocking potential ANSF reinforcements. Taliban militants briefly captured Khanabad District in Kunduz and Khwaja Ghar District in neighboring Takhar Province on August 20 and 22. Taliban militants also control 98% of Chahar Darah, Dasht-e Archi, and Qal’ah-ye Zal districts according to a report from the Independent Directorate of Local Governance released on July 31. Taliban militants staged their previous assault upon Kunduz from these districts in September 2015.  

3. Taliban militants staged for attacks on Baghlan’s provincial capital and blocked ANSF forces in Kabul from traveling north. Taliban militants took control of Dahana-ye Ghori District, Baghlan Province on August 15 after laying siege to Afghan security forces, forcing a retreat. Militants may use Dahana-ye Ghori to block ANSF reinforcements in Kabul from reaching Kunduz City and/or stage offensives against the provincial capital, Pul-e Khumri City, which the group has done before. 

4. Taliban militants may be switching loyalties to ISIS Wilayat Khorasan in Badakhshan Province. A large group of Taliban militants switched allegiance to ISIS in areas under Taliban control in Warduj and Yamgan Districts in northern Badakhshan Province according to local reports. This group could provide ISIS Wilayat Khorasan a foothold to expand into the northeastern provinces.

5. Unknown militants, possibly al-Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Taiba, launched coordinated attacks against the Waygal District headquarters in Nuristan Province on August 14, a step change for militants in the province. Taliban militants reportedly claim to control the district; but Afghan officials have only acknowledged deadly clashes. Extremist networks are likely shifting operations from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan to Nuristan in order to reestablish a base of operations in Afghanistan in a historic stronghold.

6. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan is contesting a district center in Nangarhar and continues to stage attacks in Kabul from the province. Officials claimed on July 19 that Afghan security forces are unable to hold terrain outside the government compound in Deh Bala district center against ISIS militants. ISIS militants detonated two SVESTs during a protest by Shi’a Hazaras in Kabul City on July 23, an attack staged in Achin District, Nangarhar province. U.S. officials confirmed a U.S. drone strike killed ISIS Wilayat Khorasan leader Hafiz Khan in Nangarhar on July 26, however, and it is unclear whether ISIS’s operations in Nangarhar will be disrupted by the loss of his leadership.  

7. Haqqani Network militants may be taking advantage of the ANSF’s focus on Helmand and Kunduz Provinces to establish control in Paktia Province. Militants captured Jani Khel district center on August 27 after Afghan security forces retreated due to a lack of supplies and reinforcements. Militants briefly closed the Gardez-Patan highway and clashed with security forces in Tsamkani and Jani Khel Districts in early August. Establishing a strong position in Paktia will give the Haqqani Network a staging ground to attack its provincial capital, Gardez, and set conditions to expand control.  

8. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan may be exploiting Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces to expand operations in Zabul Province. Afghan officials report that ISIS militants established an ISIS training and recruitment center in Khak-e Afghan District, Zabul Province. Local authorities claim the militants are flush with cash and are in constant contact with and receive funding from ISIS leaders in Iraq. Resolute Support spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland refuted these claims, stating on August 14 that U.S. military intelligence had not seen evidence indicating an ISIS presence in Zabul Province.

9. Taliban militants are setting conditions to contest control of the provincial capital of Helmand. Taliban militants launched a large-scale offensive in six of Helmand’s 13 districts on July 29, one day after Resolute Support Commander U.S. General John Nicholson stated that the ANSF regained control of Sangin and Marjah district centers. Taliban militants briefly seized Reg-e Khan Neshin, Garmser, and Nawah-ye Barakzai district centers before security forces recaptured them between July 29 and August 14. Taliban militants launched offensives to take Nad Ali district center and captured a number of areas after clashes with security forces on August 1. A new Taliban commando unit is reportedly at the front of this offensive in Helmand with advanced fighters and technologies that have allowed the group to increase the frequency and effectiveness of its assaults. The U.S. deployed an additional 100 troops to support the train, advise, and assist mission around Lashkar Gah on August 22.