War & Peace

After the ‘operational pause’: How big is the insurgents’ 2013 spring offensive?


With two high-profile attacks in Kabul and one in Jalalabad in the two last weeks, Afghanistan’s insurgents seem to have made true on their promise of a ‘monumental’ spring offensive. In terms of propaganda, the three attacks were successful: the media in Afghanistan and abroad gave the incidents wide coverage. AAN Co-Director Thomas Ruttig has been investigating insurgent activity over the past six months and comes to the conclusion that the level of violence this year has been high, approximately on a par with 2011, which was the worst year since the war began in 2001. There are larger concentrations and bolder attacks by the insurgents, combined with an influx of foreign fighters and madrassa students from Pakistan, although so far, mainly operating in peripheral areas. This could mean, however, the start of a build-up for more powerful attacks over the summer and into 2014. With the pending withdrawal of NATO combat forces, the Afghan war seems slowly to be changing its character, looking less like an insurgency against a foreign ‘occupation’ and more of a struggle between two indigenous contenders for power.

After the recent insurgent attacks in Kabul and Jalalabad it has been widely debated whether there has actually been an upsurge of violence this year, particularly since the Taleban announcement, on 27 April 2013, of the start of what they said would be a ‘monumental’ spring offensive, dubbed ‘Khaled ben Walid’, after a general and companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who united the Arabian peninsula under a caliphate for the first time in history.

In order to answer how violent 2013 has been so far, a focus on Kabul or, more generally, urban centres is not sufficient. Much of the violence is happening in rural areas. In trying to assess the scale of the fighting, it is a pity that ISAF has stopped its regular (if not comprehensive)(1) reporting of insurgent activity (it argued that the Afghan government is in the lead now and should do the reporting – which it is not). That means the only country-wide sets of data still publicly available comes from ANSO, the Afghan NGO Safety Office which publishes quarterly, and the United Nations mission’s human rights team – which monitors civilian casualties and publishes bi-annually. Another source is media reporting, which, although not covering all incidents in the provinces, provides a fairly good picture because it covers at least most of the more extensive insurgent operations.

Although ANSO’s report for the second quarter is not expected until mid-July, its data on insurgent activity in the first quarter of the year, which does not cover the high-profile May attacks, already shows that the total the number of insurgent attacks has grown by 47 per cent, compared with the first quarter of 2012. 25 out of 34 provinces had a higher rate of incidents and 14 even exceeded the peak year 2011. ANSO predicts that ‘the current re-escalation trend will be preserved throughout the entire season, that 2013 is set to become the second most violent year after 2011’ and that the ‘volume of suicide/complex attacks in Kabul … should be closer to that of 2011 than 2012’. According to the UN, the number of civilian casualties is also already up this year. The ICRC has said violence is cutting off Afghans from basic services in even greater numbers.

ANSO has concluded that these figures already challenge ‘the linear logic that the shrinking [international military] presence will result in less military determination by the [Taleban]’ and that ‘the downturn [in violence] noted last year was not reflective of a permanently degraded [insurgent] capability but rather linked to the [armed] opposition adopting an operational pause … which since has come to an end’.

One feature is already emerging from the Kabul attacks: that the insurgency consists of various actors and is not a united one. Besides the Taleban, who are the largest insurgent movement, there is Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, usually known in western circles as HIG with its own approaches and tactics (our blog on latest developments in Hezb here). Each claimed one of the spectacular May attacks in Kabul: HIG, the attack on 16 May against a low-profile, but high-value convoy during which six Americans (two military staff and four DynCorp contractors) and nine Afghan civilians including two children, were killed; the Taleban, the 24 May attack on a guesthouse of the UN-affiliated International Organisation for Migration (IOM) about which casualty figures vary (see here or here).

Particularly interesting here is the attitude of Hezb-e Islami’s two wings: the insurgents (HIG) and the political party which enjoys a place in parliament and government. Over the last two years, beginning in March 2010, its insurgent wing has attempted to get a dialogue going with the Kabul government about a possible political accommodation. In this period, it sent 17 delegations to Kabul for talks (see our blog here) and representatives also spoke with the highest ranking US officials in Kabul, both civilian and military.

But since the talks have been declared a failure by both sides (see here and here),(2) HIG has claimed two high-profile bomb attacks in the Afghan capital within eight months, the first one on 18 September 2012 and the second on 16 May this year. The latter was carried out in a way not much different from the Taleban modus operandi; however, the Taleban have so far largely avoided attacking in Kabul’s rush hour traffic (here one case where they did not avoid it). It came in the week after President Hamed Karzai announced that he had agreed to an US request to retain nine military bases in Afghanistan.(3) HIG also said it had formed a new suicide unit in a response to the US-Afghan bases plan. HIG seems to assume that attacking the foreign forces is much more popular than attacking the ANSF which is seen not only as a truly national institution by many Afghans (whether that is true or not), but has also enjoyed a ‘high’ in public opinion after the latest anti-terror operations and its (perceived) role vis-à-vis Pakistani incursions into Afghan territory along the Durand Line.

However, like the Taleban leadership after the ICRC attack, the party’s legal wing led by economy minister Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal failed to condemn their former comrades, just condemning attacks in general that ‘killed and wounded innocent people’.(4) The legal wing of the party also still held talks earlier this year with HIG, including about a possible joint candidate during the April 2014 presidential election – this was after HIG had claimed the first terror attack in the capital. This raises doubts about whether the claimed distance between the two wings of Hezb is genuine and questions as to why the government so easily assented to talking to Hezb in the first place, without putting the same red lines to it as to the Taleban, namely laying down their arms first and recognising the constitution. Senate Chairman Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, who has a tanzim but not a Hezb-e Islami background, called on Afghans to differentiate between the violent and non-violent factions of Hezb.

The second feature emerging in the insurgency is that a rather high-intensity Taleban offensive was already going on over winter, ie before their declared spring offensive. This is indicated by the number of relatively significant attacks that make it, at least, into the Afghan media. On 23 November 2012, a truck bomb, justified as a revenge attack for torture by Afghan and US special forces in Wardak province, blew up the provincial governor’s compound. On 28 November and 18 December 2012, larger Taleban groups attacked and temporarily took over the district centres of Lalpur in Nangrahar and Du-Ab in Nuristan. On 6 December 2012, an assassination attempt on intelligence chief Assadullah Khaled was made in his own guesthouse in the middle of Kabul which he survived only by a whisker. On 2 December 2012, the Taleban attacked Jalalabad airport with its US military base. On 26 December, the US Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost was attacked again (this was where in December 2009 a number of CIA operatives were killed by a double, possibly triple, agent). On 25 February 2013, there were attacks on an ANA base in Nadali, Helmand and, on 26 March, a UK military patrol base, also in Helmand, during which 10 British soldiers were injured. On 2 January 2013, two larger Taleban groups tried to take over the district centre of Khanabad in Kunduz and on 22 January 2013, some 500 Taleban overrun three villages in Jaji Maidan district, Khost, just on this side of the border with Pakistan. On 24 February 2013, simultaneous bomb and suicide attacks hit Jalalabad, Logar and Kabul. On 12 April 2013, the Taleban temporarily took over an ANA post in Narai district, Kunar, killing nine ANA staff and on 14 April 2013, they killed four ALP members and a civilian in Khwaja Dukoh district, Jawzjan.

This ‘pre-spring offensive period’ ended with an extremely violent attack in the province of Farah on 4 April 2013 where nine Taleban suicide attackers, disguised as Afghan soldiers, ambushed a courthouse and left at least 44 people dead and more than 100 injured, again mainly civilians.

During the same period, the Taleban continued their assassination campaign against government and military officials, as well as pro-government figures on the subnational level (see some reports herehereherehere and here). Although most of these attempts failed, but still caused the death of numerous civilians and policemen instead, I counted eleven successful assassination cases, three with multiple targets, between 1 January 2013 and the proclamation of spring offensive. From then onwards, I registered seven successful assassinations. One day after the proclamation of ‘Khaled ben Walid’, the deputy provincial police chief of Ghazni was killed, followed by the police chief of Khak-e Safid district in Farah, the deputy NDS chief of Nuristan, the chairman of the Baghlan provincial council (see our latest analysis of Baghlan here), HPC officials from Helmand and Logar, as well as an ALP commander from Ghazni. Meanwhile, assassins failed to kill the district governor of Archi in Kunduz province on 7 May 2013, the provincial governor of Kapisa on 10 May 2013, the deputy district police commander of Andkhoi, Faryab, one day later and the deputy governor of Zabul province and the district chief of Darzab in Jawzjan, both on 27 May 2013.

The third feature emerging from this list of incidents is that, while high-profile attacks in Kabul generate most media coverage, much, and often extremely violent, insurgent activity is going on in the rural areas with relatively little coverage.

Fourth, the insurgents continue to attack both ANSF and international forces installations as well as government institutions. On 13 May 2013, in a complex attack against a mixed Afghan/ISAF base in Musa Qala, Helmand province, three Georgian soldiers were killed. Three days later, the district headquarters of Sarobi in Paktika came under attack, with one person killed and 9 injured, and on 25 May 2013, that of Purchaman in Farah. On social media, there was also a report of 100 Afghan policemen surrounded by Taleban in Badakhshan on 29 May 2013 (see also here), and the besieging of the district centre of Dolena in Ghor at the end of May. On 29 May 2013, six suicide bombers wearing Afghan police uniforms stormed the compound of the provincial governor of Panjshir who was present but remained unharmed; one policeman was killed and two others injured. Over the same period, armed clashes intensified in Herat province, with fighting or attacks in six districts there, Karokh, Kushk, Gulran, Obe, Chesht-e Sharif and Shindand. Fighting has also flared up in Faryab province, again toward the end of May 2013.

Of particularly importance were the series of attacks on 13 ANP and ALP posts in the district centre of Sangin in Helmand that started on 21 May 2013. Although Afghan and ISAF sources declared the attacks were over several times, they were still on-going on 30 May 2013. While the figures cited by Afghan officials of 500 – or even a thousand – attackers, including foreign fighter and insurgents deployed from neighbouring Kandahar (from the provincial governor, here) might be exaggerated, the NATO description that there was ‘not much more than drive-by shootings’ seems an attempt to talk down the problem. The Sangin attack is not only remarkable because of its comparatively large size, but also because the district is a former ‘US surge area’ and has been repeatedly declared Taleban-free.(5)

The spring offensive has proven to be intense, but many of its features resemble earlier years’ fighting. The insurgents continue to operate countrywide, including in areas – like Herat or even more so Panjshir – that are not their strongholds. They use a broad scope of tools, from IEDs, car and cycle bombs to complex attacks, including multiple suicide bombers. The campaign of assassinations of government and ANSF officials continues. While the Taleban have not given up attacking ISAF/NATO forces and even smaller bases, it increasingly concentrates on the regular ANSF and auxiliary forces like the ALP.

The Taleban, including the Haqqani network, continue to conduct high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital. This seems aimed at attracting international media and possibly ‘donor’ attention as well as spreading uncertainty among the Afghan population, government and armed forces, by projecting that the insurgency can hit everywhere in the country, penetrating even ANSF’s ‘rings of steel’ around major city centres. The availability and use of ANSF uniforms or even (as in the case of their 14 September 2012 night attack against the airfield of Camp Bastion) western army uniforms facilitate such surprise attacks. (A crack down on uniform sales started in 2011 has obviously failed, see here). Such high-profile strikes in urban centres, even if successful, will not alter the strategic situation with the government and international forces controlling urban centres and main transport routes.

It is particularly troubling that the insurgents – both Taleban and HIG – increasingly attack civilians, despite repeated assurances to the contrary (see our recent discussion of the issue here and here). This includes not only the well-publicised attacks on those working in international organisations (IOM in KBL and ICRC in Jalalabad) but also on the customers of the Farah provincial court (mentioned above) and the inhabitants of Kandahar city’s Aino Mena housing complex co-owned by presidential brother Mahmud Karzai. There, on 21 May 2013, a double car and bicycle bomb attack was carried out which killed nine people and injured more than 70. This clearly constituted a purely civilian target.

Another trend in 2013 is that the Taleban attack and temporarily try to take over district centres in more peripheral areas, using concentrations of up to several hundred fighters. This seems to be happening for the first time since 2006/07 when the Taleban even established fortified positions in districts just outside Kandahar, something which was interpreted as the preparation for an attack on the city itself. It was only to be prevented by massive US-Canadian counter-attacks. Allied airpower, so far, makes sure that today, if take-overs of district centres happen, the Taleban are pushed out soon again. Such moves by the Taleban seem aimed primarily at showing strength and testing the capabilities of the ANSF and scoping out how far the IMF will still support Afghan allies. At the same time, by quickly withdrawing, they minimise losses. It cannot be excluded, however, that such attacks might turn into attempts to occupy territory longer term. All in all, however, the ANSF and their western allies are so far able to prevent territorial gains by the insurgents; the government still holds all provincial and most district capitals.

The ANSF have become more professional in fighting insurgents during these incidents. Their capacity in preventing attacks, however, seems to have remained limited, despite periodic reports of foiled attacks (see one example here) the validity of which is difficult to establish. Even ISAF, usually more positive about Afghan developments, stated after the 29 May 2013 attack on the provincial governor’s office in Panjshir that it ‘will heighten concerns about the militants’ ability to strike in districts where they have little presence or public support’.

According to the ANSO reports already quoted above, 73 per cent of all attacks attributed to insurgents in the first quarter this year were targeted at the ANSF. This trend is epitomised by growing ANSF casualty figures (see media reporting herehere or here). Larger concentrations and bolder attacks by the insurgents, combined with – according to the Afghan Ministry of Defence (quoted in Kabul’s Mandegar daily on 21 May 2013) – a big influx of foreign fighters and madrassa students from Pakistan, could mean a build-up for more powerful attacks over this summer and in 2014. The level of violence this year is the highest it has been since the war started in 2001, on par with the worst year so far, 2011. With the pending withdrawal of NATO combat forces and their already on-going thinning out, including the closure of PRTs, it seems that the Afghan war is slowly changing its character. It is looking less an insurgency against a foreign occupation and more of a civil war, between two indigenous contenders for power.

(1) Remember its award-worthy reply to AAN’s October 2011 report ‘A Knock on the Door: 22 Months of ISAF Press Releases’:

The published ISAF press releases … were never intended to be an authoritative database of all ISAF operations conducted in Afghanistan, nor even a representative sample from which to draw scholarly conclusions. … the release of information through such releases is, by design, incomplete.

Meanwhile, it also turned out that there was serious under-reporting about insurgent activity at least in ISAF RC North in 2012 and 2011 (see here and here, in German).

(2) Another issue which might have led to the breakdown of these talks was Hekmatyar’s demand to establish an interim government to ensure ‘fair elections’ in April 2014 (last report by Mandegar daily, Kabul, 24 December 2012, AAN media monitoring), an attempt that would not go down well with the president.

(3) HIG justified the September 2012 attack as ‘revenge’ for the screening of an anti-Islam film in the US. Its attack outside Kabul International Airport, using a suicide bomber, allegedly an 18-year old woman, killed 12 civilians, among them nine foreigners – eight South Africans and a Kyrgyz.

(4) In September 2012, immediately after the breakdown of the talks between the Kabul government and HIG, Mawlawi Attaullah Ludin, a former Hezb commander and now deputy chairman of the High Peace Council, described Hekmatyar as follows:

He was our teacher: he was teaching us about Islamic law and customs, he was teaching us about politics, he was teaching us about everything. So we do not have any problems with him and he is not our enemy, he is only the enemy of the Americans and the current government.

(5) The following paragraph from the Wall Street Journal summarises the history of the surge in Sangin:

The U.S. Marines who took over in 2010 succeeded in pushing back the insurgents, regaining control of a highway that runs north to south through Sangin. These days, that road is no longer considered secure.

On the general trend, see here: ‘Attacks by Taliban Rise in Surge Areas’.

photo: Village in Anardara, Farah, in more peaceful times (Thomas Ruttig, 2006)

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