While Afghanistan’s northern provinces – mainly Kunduz, Faryab and Sar-e Pul – have been in the media’s focus on this year’s Taleban offensive, fighting in their southern Afghan strongholds has geared up too. Within one month the Taleban were able to capture two district centres in Helmand, Musa Qala (still contested) and Nawzad. This combines with an increase in the number of districts falling under their control all over the country compared to previous years. AAN’s senior analyst, Thomas Ruttig, looks at the new fighting around Musa Qala, zooms out to countrywide developments and sees the Taleban making headway – not dramatically, but more stealthily, as most district centres are relatively quickly recaptured by Afghan forces. But district control and keeping hold of the district centres is not the same – for both sides. The Taleban seem to be continuing a long-term strategy by increasing the strain on the Afghan armed forces.A view of Musa Qala. Source: UK Forces blog (2010).
Within a month, the Taleban – with Musa Qala – had taken the second district centre in the southern province of Helmand on 26 August. Although the Afghan government forces claimed they were back in control four days later, on 30 August, amidst reports of 220 to 300 Taleban killed and photos of triumphant Afghan soldiers on the media, the situation is less clear-cut than reflected in these reports. Also, the figures might be exaggerated. (One report by an Afghan news agency about a Taleban meeting hit, with many people killed, disappeared from the website.) According to information AAN has received from the area, Musa Qala‘s district centre remained in the hands of the government forces for one day only. Then, they had to leave again quickly, and the Taleban reportedly are back. Also, this might not be the end-state, even in the short-term.
Nawzad, the district immediately to the west of Musa Qala, and 170 kilometres north of the provincial capital, Lashkargah, has remained in Taleban hands since it fell to them on 29 July. A counter-offensive was reported as being under way soon after led by Kandahar police chief General Abdul Razeq. However, it did not succeed in recapturing the district until Musa Qala fell. It looks as if the forces moved to Nawzad were sent then to Musa Qala; the more prestigious of the two district centres.
In the temporary retaking of Musa Qala, airstrikes, both by the Afghan air force, as well as by US forces, played a major role. Even before the Taleban managed their take over of Musa Qala, there had been three US air strikes that were reported to have killed 40 militants. After the operation, NATO sources said over the past week it conducted at least 13 airstrikes on Taliban positions in the district to aid Afghan forces. 90 members of the Special Operations Forces – soldiers of a US Air Force Special Tactics Squadron – had been deployed; the largest number of US troops in the province since it was officially handed over to the Afghan government side in 2014. A US military spokesman explained, “whenever the U.S. conducts airstrikes, a U.S. [joint terminal attack controller] JTAC must be on the ground directing the strike to ensure they are conducted within our rules of engagement.”
Already last year the Taleban had launched a massive, but then unsuccessful, assault on Musa Qala’s district centre. There had been more fighting earlier this year in May and June. Since then, there had been warnings by local officials in the Afghan media that it could fall to the Taleban.
Like Musa Qala, Nawzad had been in a volatile situation for many months. In November 2014, Afghan media had quoted its district governor as saying that “government forces control only one of the 360 karez [village cluster linked to the same irrigation system] and the office of the district governor” there.
In Musa Qala, Afghan forces seem to have been outnumbered again. Although AAN has not identified the exact number of the forces the Afghan government had on the ground, district governor Muhammad Sharif said that he had to flee the district town when “more than 100” Taleban fighters attacked “from all sides.” He also indicated that reinforcements had not arrived in time within the week the fighting had already been raging. He had said three Taleban groups were active already in the area in May with 150 fighters each, and that the police were understaffed. Also, the refusal of local officials to face the real situation contributed to the setbacks of the government forces. One day before the Taleban took Musa Qala, Helmand’s deputy governor, Muhammad Jan Rassulyar, claimed that the Taleban had suffered heavy casualties and were on the retreat. Members of Helmand’s provincial council blamed “bad management“ of the security forces and corruption in Musa Qala’s district administration for the Taleban success.
The figure of the number of attackers the district governor gave sounds realistic – in other cases, local officials had claimed to be facing “thousands” of Taleban; surely an exaggerated number. Sharif also said that “Pakistani, Arabs and Chechens” were on the side of the Taleban. A member of Helmand’s provincial council, Attaullah Afghan, confirmed that weapons and ammunitions had been sent from Quetta and that there was an “influx” of fighters from there, without specifically describing their nationality.
The situation in Helmand
North of Musa Qala and Nawzad, the district of Baghran, which is the northern tip of Helmand province, has been under Taleban control for ten years already. The New York Times recently quoted a local shopkeeper saying “In Baghran, you feel like you are in a mini-emirate of the Taliban.” Listening to music is banned (news channels like BBC Pashto are allowed, though), as is trimming beards and “fancy haircuts,”. Cell phone services are closed down and the Ministry for Vice and Virtue is “back on patrol.” “Women leave home only with their husbands or male family members and, then, only to visit the doctor or a few other authorised destinations. There are no girls’ schools and education for boys is limited too.” The Times concluded: “There is probably nowhere else in Afghanistan more completely under Taliban rule.”
The Taleban also control large parts of the next district to the east of Musa Qala, Kajaki, with its important hydro-electrical station which provides power to Kandahar. The road linking the district centre with the rest of the province has been blocked since fighting in mid-June. Fighting was also reported earlier this year from Sangin, to the south of Kajaki, another former hotspot of British-Taleban fighting, and Nahr-e Seraj districts, to the immediate north of the provincial capital Lashkargah. Also, Dishu and Baghni (an unofficial district) in Helmand’s south are partly in Taleban hands.
In summary, eight out of Helmand’s 14 districts (13 plus unofficial Baghni) are under full or significant Taleban control.
The civilian population bears the brunt of the upsurge in fighting in Helmand. In April this year, the ICRC reported an increasing number of civilian casualties. By late July, the fighting had resulted in the closure of around 100 schools all over the province; more than one quarter of the 385 schools existing. In Kajaki, a virtual economic blockade is in place. This is causing significant price rises for basic staples and affecting the civilian population, apart from the direct casualties it is suffering.
Musa Qala’s significance
Since the recent Taleban takeover, Musa Qala has been described as “strategic” in media reports (for example, here). This assertion might be overblown. Its significance – for the West, and particularly Britain – is more of a symbolic nature. British troops suffered heavy casualties in the district. 40 were killed when they had to recapture it in late 2007 after it had been taken over by the Taleban for the first time in February 2007. The Afghan government, then under President Hamed Karzai, saw the loss of any district centre as undermining its own territorial control and sovereignty.
But there was an unusual background to those events. They were preceded by an early attempt to conclude a local peace agreement with the Taleban, stop the fighting (or end the practical siege the British troops were facing in Musa Qala) and open it up for development activities that would also include the Taleban. Such a ‘protocol’ (1) was proposed and then mediated by Musa Qala tribal elders. This came finally into force on 7 September 2006. It held for 142 days – because the British, the provincial and the Kabul government and the Taleban were not the only actors in that area. US troops were also operating in Helmand, and the government in Washington at the time still rejected all political dealings with the Taleban; this only changed at the very end of the Bush administration. There were also opponents to the agreement in the Afghan administration.
The agreement first ran into turbulence after the provincial governor in Helmand changed in December 2006. The new one, Assadullah Wafa, a close confidant of then President Hamed Karzai, pushed for changes of its content which would have limited the authority of the Musa Qala tribal council. It finally broke down when US troops attacked Taleban fighters on the outskirts of the Musa Qala district centre. The protocol was valid only in a five-mile radius around the town. The US claimed the airstrike was conducted outside that zone, while the Taleban said the opposite. They reacted by sending in more fighters and took over Musa Qala. It then took the British forces ten months to recapture it in December that year. (More details about the Musa Qala protocol in a 2007 paper by this author, available in German only.)
After the recapture in 2007, another attempt to stabilise the district was undertaken with the help of a local Taleban commander who had defected to the government’s side, Mullah Abdul Salam. Salam was made Musa Qala’s governor, but after several attacks on his life – one in early 2009 killed many family members – and a fall out with the British troops, he finally gave up.
A similar earlier attempt had failed in Baghran district when local commander Abdul Wahid, better known as the “Chief of Baghran” (Rais-e Baghran, in control of the district since the 1980s), joined the Afghan government’s ‘reconciliation’ programme in April 2005 and was made district governor there (see here and here). – Wahid had originally been allied with Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami who had been in control of the district since the 1980s and later worked with the Taleban regime. After the fall of the Taleban, Mike Martin, a British author who published an authoritative account of Helmand’s wars, wrote, “Abdul Wahid de-talibanised himself and considered surrendering to the new government but as the provincial administration was run by his arch rival [the Akhundzada clan in Musa Qala], stayed in Baghran as the de facto leader.” One year after his 2005 deal, Wahid drifted back towards the Taleban, claiming that he had been left too much to his own devices, without much government and British support. The Taleban regained control over Baghran without much trouble in 2006. (For more botched peace dealings in Helmand read this AAN dispatch on how Sangin district fell.)
Apart from having been the failed model for local peace deals with the Taleban and then turned into a symbolic prize, Musa Qala also has economic significance. The district centre hosts a major drug bazaar at the heart of Helmand’s poppy production area. The province, over the past decades, had always been Afghanistan’s top poppy producer, accounting for up to two thirds of the country’s whole output; if Helmand were an independent country, it still would be the largest opium producer in the world. (2)
The area has traditionally been the stronghold of the Akhundzada clan that had been a major ally of President Karzai during his tenure from 2001 to 2014. The clan, originally from neighbouring Kajaki, rose to importance much earlier, though. During the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, its head, Mullah Muhammad Nassim Akhundzada, was the dominant local mujahedin commander and linked to Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami. He owed his strength to the income from the poppy industry that grew exponentially under his tenure – and, as Giustozzi and Noor Ullah wrote in a 2006 paper, this was extended systematically all over the province. Nassim Akhundzada was assassinated in 1990 in an ambush in Pakistan, which is often attributed to his main rival party in the area, Hezb-e Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But family members, including his son Sher Muhammad Akhundzada – Helmand’s governor from 2001 to 2005 – maintained their control.
The countrywide picture: Dostum’s northern offensive
As the New York Times wrote earlier this month, “officially, the Afghan government acknowledges having lost only four out of roughly 400 districts to the Taliban.” (3) The real picture, though, looks slightly more negative. It is also fluid. Therefore, the following collection of reports, assembled from publicly accessible sources only, mirrors the trend, but not the whole situation.
The fluidity of the situation is reflected not only in Musa Qala, but also in the much feted, and also much criticised, somewhat personal anti-Taleban offensive Vice President and General Abdul Rashid Dostum has been conducting in the northern provinces.
Starting from his home town of Sherbarghan in Jawzjan in August (media reporting, here, for example), he proceeded with a mass mobilisation of militias – he preferred the term “uprising forces” – to clear the Taleban-besieged districts of Almar, Pashtunkot, Shirin Tagab and Qaisar of Faryab (the last of a series of AAN reports from there here). Subsequently, reports of civilian casualties and severe damage inflicted on local communities during those operations came from the area, for example, from Almar, including accusations that houses of alleged Taleban sympathisers were burnt down in Qaisar district. Dostum refuted these allegations, which, according to some political forces in Kabul, are instrumental in projecting the conflict in the north as one between Dostum’s Uzbeks (and others) and the Pashtun minority.
Latest reports from the area also suggest that the operations have, at least, partly been unsustainable. One key area, Astana Baba in Faryab’s Shirin Tagab district, called “the last Taleban stronghold in the province” by the pro-Dostum forces, fell back to the Taleban on 27 August, only one day after it had been taken and only “hours” after Dostum left to shift his activity to neighbouring Sar-e Pul province. Reportedly, he redeployed to Sayad district with 2000 fighters – which made the Taleban vacate, without putting up resistance, neighbouring Kohistanat district on 28 August that had been taken over by them on 28 July, almost simultaneously with Nawzad in Helmand. Meanwhile, in Astana Baba, the Taleban took revenge on pro-Dostum fighters by decimating a unit of the “uprising forces” established under Dostum’s aegis, reportedly killing 20 of its 80 members. There were also setbacks in Qaisar district.
It looks as if Dostum was facing the same problem ISAF troops had encountered, ie when directly assaulted, the Taleban prefer to withdraw, only to return when the attack party has left again; ‘clearing’ territory again proved to be easier then holding it.
The countrywide picture: general district control patterns
Including Musa Qala and Nawzad, the Taleban, in 2015, have captured all in all 11 districts centres. Four of them were held only temporarily, while seven others remain in their hands to date. The four recaptured by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) or vacated by the Taleban when pro-government forces were approaching are Qala-ye Zal and Imam Saheb (Kunduz), Yamgan (Badakhshan) and Kohistanat (Sar-e Pul). The seven district centres remaining under Taleban control are: Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi (Kunduz), Waigal (Nuristan) and Jawand (Badghis), Nawzad (Helmand) and finally Nawa in southern Ghazni. The seventh, Nawa, had been controlled by the Taleban for nine years, then was retaken by ANSF in May this year, but lost again to the Taleban one week later. The situation in Musa Qala, as mentioned, is still unclear.
Four or five more districts have been under Taleban control for years as well. Besides Baghran in Helmand, these are Khak-e Afghan and Nawbahar (Zabul) (4) and possibly Pasaband in Ghor. Du Ab (Nuristan) was captured last year in August.
This brings the total figure of fully Taleban-controlled districts from 10 to 12.
Additionally, Chahrsada in Badghis has been held by Taleban twice in 2014 (read here and here). Yamgan and Warduj in Badakhshan have changed hands several times over the last years. Irrespective of who is in control currently, they fall in to the category of “contested districts” – i.e. district control for the Taleban is also possible without taking the district centre, while the government often claims districts where it only controls the administrative centres (but often not much more). In many cases, mainly in eastern and southern Afghanistan, it has simply moved the administrative centres from their original places to locations that are still under its control. One such example is Daychopan in Zabul with its new administrative centre in Bailogh.
In Waghaz in Ghazni, the district governor admitted in December 2014 that there were hundreds of Taleban fighters even “in the town.” In Syurai, in Zabul, local sources told AAN that the government only holds the district governor’s office; the same goes for Charchino in Uruzgan. In Logar, MPs and provincial council members said in late 2014 “most parts of Charkh, Kharwar and Azra districts [are] under the control of the armed opponents.” In Tagab, Kapisa, “it is the government here that operates in the shadow“, according to a media report. The same, possibly, can be said about nearby Nejrab and Alasai districts.
In Daulat Shah and Alisheng, Laghman, it has been reported that “the Taleban might win by not losing,“ ie they are present without being challenged. More vulnerable districts (not yet mentioned above) have been mentioned in AAN’s recent short series of Afghanistan’s most notorious hotspots (here and here): Panjwayi and Zharai in Kandahar; Shindand in Herat; Bala Murghab in Badghis; Jurm in Badakhshan; Kamdesh, Barg-e Matal and Pech in Nuristan; the remaining districts in Nangrahar’s Spin Ghar mountains; plus Achin and Khugiani; Zurmat in Paktia; Andar in Ghazni; and parts of Kabul’s Sarobi district.
Trouble in other districts simply has not made it into the media – like attacks on the district centre of Taywara and heavy fighting in Dolina (both Ghor) last year or in Gizab, Dehrawud, Chora and Khas Uruzgan in Uruzgan. In Khas Uruzgan, the district centre was close to falling into the hand of the Taleban around 23 August, and government forces had to airlift local Afghan Local Police forces out – this has only become known through a strangely opaque Operation Resolute Support press release republished word-by-word by Khaama news agency (without giving the actual source). AAN had these developments confirmed by local sources (see our recent dispatch here). Five districts in Nangrahar – Kot, Achin, Deh Bala, Naziyan, Rodat and Chaparhar – are reportedly partially controlled by armed groups that allied themselves with the IS.
“Heavy fighting” and Taleban fighters’ presence near districts centres have further been reported from districts as far apart as Bala Boluk, Bakwa and Poshtrud in Farah; Burka in northern Baghlan; and Tsamkanai (Chamkani) in Paktia. Taking these and similar reports into account, there is a minimum of 60 contested districts. In addition, remoter areas of Paktika, Paktia and Khost, as well as of Herat, parts of Wardak, Parwan or Kunar, and even some parts of Kabul province – like Musahi or Guldara – are underreported and, in all likelihood, there must be an even larger figure in reality.
This exceeds figures given by the Afghan Ministry of Defence on 7 June 2015 saying that 40 to 50 districts were facing “a Taleban threat.” It corresponds with November 2014 figures of the interior ministry, though, speaking of 60 to 70 “threatened” districts.
The balance of power
None of the districts recently taken over by the Taleban are strategically overly important. Most of them, except those in Kunduz, are in peripheral areas. Altogether, their capture does not significantly change the balance of forces in favour of the insurgents. But, firstly, such takeovers hand frequent propaganda victories to the insurgents, and, secondly, they add up to creeping progress, as those districts add to and sometimes directly expand territory already controlled or influenced by them.
Particularly Baghran, Musa Qala and Nawzad in Helmand belong to a belt of thinly populated central areas of Afghanistan, a relatively compact area only dotted by government-controlled enclaves that constitute a Taleban safe haven within Afghanistan, much of it for years already. It stretches across the country from parts of districts in eastern Farah and southern Ghor in the west, close to the Iranian border, through Uruzgan, northern Kandahar and northern Helmand, to parts of Zabul, southern Ghazni and southern Paktika at the Pakistani border. During the 2009-12 US surge that concentrated on more heavily populated areas and those along the ring road, they were called the “dusty districts” and largely left aside from much attention. That helped the Taleban to establish themselves in those areas. As early as 2011, AAN has reported the existence of another “insurgency corridor in the making,” stretching through the north of eastern Afghanistan, from Kunar and Nuristan at the Pakistani border to the vicinity of Kabul.
The ANSF so far continue to be able to prevent territorial gains by the insurgents of more strategic areas. They hold all provincial, by far the most district capitals and, at least during the day, most major roads. But even there, there are sporadic Taleban appearances, in the form of makeshift check posts (see a photo here from 27 August 2015 taken on the highway to Jalalabad). Another notorious hotspot is the secondary road forking off the Kabul-Kandahar highway in Ghazni province into Jaghori district. Meanwhile, operations against the Taleban in Parwan province seem to have been successful; there were no recent reports of incidents on the Kabul-Bamyan route through Ghorband.
The 332,000-strong ANSF, however, often only seem to be able to react to the multi-pronged Taleban mini-offensives when the latter have already captured a district centre, as in the cases of Musa Qala, Nawzad or Yamgan. Even with the 28,400 Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces and other official and unofficial auxiliary forces, the ANSF seem to be overstretched on the large and topographically difficult Afghan territory and, as a result, often outnumbered at specific flashpoints. The latest assessment by the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) speaks of a generally, although slowly, decreasing capability of the ANSF compared to 2013, attributed to “the stresses imposed on ANDSF units at the beginning of the 2015 fighting season, in particular with command and control and the coordination of joint-force operations“ and despite slightly declining attrition rates. (5)
At the start of this year’s Taleban spring offensive in Kunduz, the ANSF were clearly taken by surprise. If this strategy of pinpricks continues, it might result in wearing out the best units – including the Afghan Special Forces – that are often sent in to turn around territorial losses.
This Taleban strategy is not new, though. We had already reported it in 2013, after some years’ lull, for “more peripheral areas, using concentrations of up to several hundred fighters.“ But there are indications that the pattern is changing. Graeme Smith, the International Crisis Group’s chief researcher in Afghanistan, told AAN by email:
We predicted that district centres would be vulnerable this year, but nobody expected the way these major attacks have spread across the country. This fighting season has seen the Taleban throw hundreds of fighters at unlikely targets in the north, far from the insurgents’ usual strongholds. By contrast, in parts of the south and east, it has been surprising that remote district centres have remained under government control despite this year’s unprecedented levels of insurgent activity.
The concentration of the fighting on the north earlier this year also seems to be grounded in the fact that, in some areas of the south, the Taleban are more prone (or even used) to making deals with district administrations while, in the north, the mood is more in favour of fighting it out.
Altogether, the Taleban are still playing for time, leading a war of attrition. During the 1980s, guerrilla wars in Central America, the term la guerra prolongada, (“extended war”) was used for such a phase that could continue over many years. In Nicaragua, it was followed by a final successful push by the Sandinistas in 1979 after the regime had isolated itself (by a series of assassinations) even from its closest allies. In this, there might be a ray of hope for Afghanistan: the Sandinistas, then, had extremely broad support in the population, the farmers, the middle classes and even parts of the elite. The Taleban, in contrast, except on paper, as in their layha (an AAN paper here), do not seem to care much about their popularity. This has been shown by their recent attacks in the middle of Kabul.
(Photo: ukforcesafghanistan.wordpress.com, 2010)
(1) ‘Protocols’ were unofficial quasi-ceasefire deals developed by former President Najibullah (1986-92) and his Soviet backers in the fight with the mujahedin. Current Interior Minister Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, then military chief of the southern zone around Kandahar, was a major proponent of this approach.
(2) More information about the Akhundzada clan in this article and in the Giustozzi/Noor Ullah paper already mentioned in the text.
(3) As so often, even this figure is unclear: officially, according to the Central Statistics Office, there are 364 districts, plus a number of so-called unofficial ones. Some of them have been staffed by the government and, therefore, recognised and are functioning, others are dormant. Parliament still has not managed to finalise what is called “districts delineation”, as many of the unofficial districts have been established under previous governments, leaders of which are still influential in the current government and, so, it is difficult to dismantle them.
(4) The government officially denied the fall of Nawbahar that had been reported in August 2014 but local sources confirmed the fact to AAN. Khak-e Afghan officially has a district governor, but he is located in the provincial capital, Qalat.
(5) Afghanistan’s armed forces are now officially referred to as Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). But this author sticks with the previous, more commonly known acronym ANSF here.
Apart from the ALP, there are the still partly operational Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF) (it was supposed to be dissolved in 2013; numbers unknown), a new Facilities Protection Force (FPF) that is currently being created with a final strength of 5,030 personnel in order to protect US and Afghan military facilities (for more figures and detail, see the recent quarterly report of the SIGAR), various “uprising forces” as the ones established by General Dostum in northern Afghanistan mentioned above in this text as well as pro-government militias as those reported by AAN from Kunduz at various occasions (the latest example here).
The Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, that has its own fighting units is not part of the public part of the SIGAR assessment. (There is a classified part for Congress.)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020