Afghanistan Partial Threat Assessment: June 30, 2016

President Obama announced on July 6 that the U.S. will maintain 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of January 2017 instead of the planned drawdown to 5,500. He then stated that the only way to achieve a full drawdown of forces is to reach a peaceful political settlement between Taliban militants and the Afghan government. A peace agreement is unlikely, however, as militants have steadily regained territory since the bulk of U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan beginning in 2011. While recent efforts have forestalled militant advances, current troop levels do not sufficiently threaten militant operations to bring them to the negotiating table or prevent additional extremist groups from reconstituting in Afghanistan.

Taliban militants announced their summer campaign, “Operation Omari,” on April 12, 2016, the day ISW published the last version of this map. The group has since held back from launching major offensives, likely in response to increased pressure from the U.S. A U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the successor to Mullah Omar, on May 21 in Balochistan, Pakistan.  Mansour’s death shifted some of the decision-making power back to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura Council, possibly slowing operations. The Taliban quickly announced new leadership to maintain cohesion within the movement, selecting Haibatullah Akhundzada as the new Emir and Sirajuddin Haqqani and the late Mullah Omar’s son, Mullah Yaqoob, as his deputies. Yaqoob originally challenged Akhtar Mansour’s leadership, but Sirajuddin facilitated his reconciliation with the group in early 2016. The appointment of both Sirajuddin and Yaqoob circumvented the likely factional infighting that might follow the choice of either of the deputies and averted the international sanctions that Siraj Haqqani’s appointment would have brought. Akhundzada’s appointment came less than two weeks before Ramadan began on June 5, and observance of the holy month may have also delayed offensives. If the group’s Operation Omari remains stalled after the end of Ramadan on July 5, it could indicate that leadership change has negatively affected operations over the medium term.

Successful joint U.S.-ANSF operations have likely also stalled major Taliban militant operations. President Obama broadened the authorities of the U.S. military in Afghanistan on June 10 to allow it to conduct joint operations with the ANSF and for U.S. airpower to offensively target Taliban militants. Resolute Support Commander General John Nicholson stated on July 12 that the U.S. used new and previous authorities to support the ANSF in successfully defending the Kunduz and Uruzgan provincial capitals from Taliban militants. These operations represent important progress of the ANSF’s capabilities to defend key population centers, but does not eliminate surrounding militant sanctuaries that threaten the integrity of cities in the long-term. Meanwhile ISIS’s Wilayat Khorasan is currently resurgent in eastern Afghanistan despite broadened U.S. authorities in December 2015 to target them directly. ISIS has launched new offensives, increased recruitment, and claimed to capture areas in Nangarhar Province since March 2016, when ANSF forces with U.S. airstrikes dislodged them.

The reduction of U.S troops allows militants, powerbrokers, and regional actors to expand operations that ultimately threaten long-term interests in Afghanistan.  Northern warlords are taking advantage of Taliban militant offensives in order to carve out their own fiefdoms and undermine President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Tensions between long-time rivals First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and acting Balkh Provincial Governor Mohammad Atta Noor have escalated, culminating in at least one clash between their two parties’ militias in Faryab Province over the reporting period. President Ghani likely gave Dostum the authority to utilize his own militias against militants in February 2016 in return for Dostum’s continued participation in government affairs as the First Vice President. Dostum and Atta are competing to establish themselves as leading security providers. Dostum also resumed harsh criticisms of the ineffectiveness of the Unity Government, indicating Dostum may be positioning himself to extract additional concessions from President Ghani to increase his influence in government and expand his militia’s operations.  Dostum and Atta’s operations impede U.S. operations in northern Afghanistan by undermining the national security institutions the U.S. mission seeks to bolster.

Russia is also posturing for an increased role in Afghan security and peace talks. Multiple Afghan officials have visited or are planning to visit Russia in order to discuss Afghan security issues. Additionally, the Russian Helicopters Company showed interest in late May in assisting the Afghan Air Force (AAF) by preparing to establish a service center in Afghanistan to provide repair and technical services to the AAF. The establishment of a Russian helicopter service center in Afghanistan would set a precedent for increased Russian involvement in Afghan military affairs. Russia seeks to undermine the U.S. and divide and deter NATO across multiple global theatres, likely including Afghanistan. Any Russian military presence in the country would complicate U.S. and NATO’s operational freedom of movement, ultimately challenging the U.S. missions in Afghanistan.

Operational gains by militant groups, compounded by aggressive actions by Afghan powerbrokers, expose the depth of the ANSF’s lack of capacity. The ANSF must eliminate Taliban sanctuary in order for the Afghan government to coerce or incentivize militants to participate in a political settlement that meets the security requirements of Afghanistan and NATO members. The ANSF is unprepared to do so at current U.S. troop levels. NATO allies renewed their commitment to Afghanistan at the NATO Summit in Warsaw on July 9 by extending the Resolute Support mission and pledging to continue funding the Afghan military through 2020. These measures are appropriate, but insufficient to close the readiness gaps of the ANSF, secure Afghanistan against them, or bring Taliban militants to the negotiating table. The next President of the United States will inherit a challenge in Afghanistan in January 2017, even with current troop levels and increased authorities for supporting ANSF offensive missions.

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

  1. Northern warlords are competing for territory and undermining their clients in the National Unity Government. Militias loyal to First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and acting Balkh Provincial Governor Mohammad Atta Noor clashed in Almar District, Faryab Province on May 17. Dostum may be seeking to extract additional concessions from President Ghani, with unconfirmed reports suggesting he may be building a private militia to challenge the central government instead of Taliban militants. Separately, Atta suggested he would resume operations in the north within a month after the Eid holiday, which ended on July 6. Continued clashes between the two warlords’ militias and posturing against the government will undermine governance and security throughout the country. 
  2. Taliban militants set conditions to launch an offensive against Kunduz City. Taliban militants launched major offensives in every district of Kunduz Province during the first half of their summer campaign and captured multiple major Ground Lines of Communication (GLOCs) surrounding Kunduz City on April 19. A Taliban spokesman claimed on April 27 that militants are waiting on orders from central leadership to relaunch their advance on Kunduz City. The change in Taliban leadership and the holy month of Ramadan may have contributed to the ongoing delay in this operation. The Taliban previously captured the city for two weeks in September and October 2015. The group is likely sending fighters to bolster militants in Kunduz, as shown by the arrests of over 200 militants traveling north through Parwan Province in early May and the release of a video depicting a large Taliban training camp in Kunduz in early July.
  3. Taliban militants secured an essential GLOC in Baghlan Province that would prevent reinforcements in Kabul from reaching Kunduz. Taliban militants seized majority control of Dand-e Shahabuddin, Dand-e Ghori, and Shahr-e Naw areas in Pul-e Khumri District, Baghlan Province in late April and early May. These areas cut access to the road leading from Pul-e Khumri north into Kunduz Province. Taliban militants also demonstrated significant presence in Surkh Kotal area, Pul-e Khumri District which sits on the ring road connecting Baghlan and Balkh Provincial Capitals Pul-e Khumri City and Mazar-e Sharif. Taliban militants will use their positions along GLOCs in Baghlan and Kunduz to prevent ANSF garrisons in Kabul from reinforcing troops in Kunduz during a future offensive to take the City.
  4. Taliban militants retain sufficient sanctuary around Kabul City to launch large-scale explosive attacks against security and diplomatic targets. Taliban militants continued their tradition of spectacular attacks against Kabul by executing a complex attack using a SVBIED (suicide vehicle-borne improved explosive device) against a security office responsible for protecting dignitaries in Kabul on April 19. The attack killed 64 and wounded almost 350, causing the most casualties in a single attack since at least 2001. Two Taliban militant suicide bombers, one possibly detonating a SVBIED, attacked an Afghan National Police (ANP) convoy on the outskirts of Kabul City, killing 30 ANP cadets on June 30. Taliban militants claimed two explosive attacks in Kabul on June 20 that ISIS Wilayat Khorasan also claimed. Both spectacular attacks bear the signatures of the Haqqani Network. Taliban militants will continue to use their sanctuary in the vicinity of Kabul to launch attacks in the city during their summer offensive.
  5. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan militants resumed operations in Nangarhar Province and potentially conducted attacks in Kabul City despite reports that they were dislodged from the area in March 2016. ISIS militants increased activity in eastern Afghanistan during Ramadan, likely as part of its global Ramadan campaign. ISIS militants attacked the Deh Bala District Police Headquarters and claimed they captured the area on June 11. ISIS militants from multiple districts in Nangarhar Province conducted coordinated attacks against ANSF checkpoints in Kot District from June 24-26. ISIS claimed two explosive attacks in Kabul City on June 20 which the Taliban also claimed, demonstrating ISIS militants’ intentions, if not capabilities, to launch attacks in the capital. In May, reports suggested ISIS’s broadcast radio “Voice of the Caliphate” had returned after being destroyed in an airstrike, and that militants were using it to recruit young men to fight for ISIS in eastern Afghanistan. ISIS militants will likely continue to launch attacks throughout Nangarhar Province in order to reestablish areas of control it lost in early 2016. General Nicholson stated on July 12 that the ANSF’s Operation Shafaq will shift back to the Nangarhar region, indicating joint U.S.-ANSF operations will begin in eastern Afghanistan in the short-term.
  6. Taliban militants likely control Andar District Center, Ghazni Province. Taliban militants executed 12 ANSF personnel in Andar District in a ceremony reportedly attended by 250 militants on June 8. Militants allegedly forced residents to watch these executions, demonstrating significant area control. This follows Afghan officials’ warnings in late March 2016 that the district would fall if security forces were not reinforced after militants’ launched efforts to take control of Andar. Reporting does not indicate security forces repelled the offensive in Andar, suggesting militants were successful in taking control of the town. Separately, 11 out of 19 district chiefs in Ghazni Province allegedly work primarily from Ghazni City due to security concerns. These reports indicate Taliban militants likely exercise significant social control throughout Ghazni Province to intimidate and coerce the population.
  7. Taliban militants are threatening major transit routes in Uruzgan Province. The Uruzgan Provincial Council Chief claimed that Taliban militants closed all roads leading into Uruzgan Provincial Capital Tarin Kot City except for the one leading into Chorah District on May 2. Taliban militants later launched coordinated attacks against the Deh Rawud District Center on May 17, with officials warning that the district would collapse without reinforcements. The ANSF previously withdrew from neighboring Shahid-e Hassas District in order to reinforce Deh Rawud in early March 2016. Local officials claimed clearing operations reopened the Tarin Kot-Deh Rawud road on June 17. General Nicholson stated on July 12 the U.S. and the ANSF prevented the fall of Tarin Kot City by striking Taliban positions that allowed the ANSF to clear the roads. The Uruzgan governor claimed militants attempted to capture Chinartu District by launching attacks against the district center on April 14. Taliban militants will likely attempt to consolidate gains in Uruzgan Province in order to use it as a base to launch attacks in Kandahar Province. Continued successful joint U.S.-ANSF operations in Kandahar and Uruzgan could mitigate these gains if the ANSF proves capable of holding the areas.  
  8. The ANSF made gains in Helmand Province, but Taliban militants will continue to threaten provincial capital Lashkar Gah City if these gains are not consolidated. Taliban militants launched several attacks against security belts surrounding Lashkar Gah City starting in May. The ANSF conducted multiple raids against Taliban prisons in Nahr-e Saraj District and claimed it cleared most of Marjah District in May and June. Resolute Support Spokesman Brigadier General Charles Cleveland stated on June 1 that the ANSF cleared the eastern side of the highway leading from Lashkar Gah to Sangin and launched an offensive in Marjah District. General Nicholson stated on July 12 that the 215th Corps have held the area between Sangin District Center and the southern end of Marjah District in 2016. U.S. and ANSF counteroffensives likely stalled Taliban militants’ operations in the province after the poppy harvest ended. The U.S. and ANSF should consolidate these gains before shifting operations to eastern Afghanistan or Taliban militants will likely recuperate losses. 
  9. Taliban militants launched coordinated attacks against Shindand City, Herat Province. Local officials claimed militants attacked security posts in an attempt to capture areas in Shindand City on May 11. Reports indicate that this offensive is ongoing. ISW has changed the status of the district center to contested.