War & Peace

Operation Omari: Taleban Announced 2016 Spring Offensive


Screenshot of the Taleban's spring offensive announcement 2016 on their English language website

Screenshot of the Taleban's spring offensive announcement 2016 on their English language website

The Taleban made their yearly spring offensive announcement on 12 April 2016. The statement attributed to Taleban leadership council (Rahbari Shura) named the offensive “Operation Omari,” in honour of the movement’s late leader and provides clues with regard to both the Taleban’s plans and the way they wish to present themselves. Of particular note are the instructions to fighters on how to behave in “villages and cities where the Islamic Emirate has established its rule.” Two days into the ‘offensive’ several dozen Taleban attacks have taken place across the country, indicating a wish to back up the announcement with a portrayal of presence and strength at the local level. So far there have been no large-scale or complex attacks. AAN’s Borhan Osman and the rest of the AAN team examine the spring offensive announcement, looking at how this year’s statement differs from past ones and what it might indicate for the 2016 fighting season.

The Taleban launched their 2016 ‘spring offensive’ with an announcement on their website on 12 April 2016. This announcement was followed by reports of dozens of attacks for which the Taleban claimed responsibility, including in Baghlan, Badghis, Faryab, Ghazni, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, Parwan, Sar-e Pul and Zabul within the first 48 hours. Although the Taleban initiated armed clashes in more than 10 provinces, and in same cases in several districts per province, they did not yet orchestrate any major attack. The majority of attacks during the first two days of Operation Omari, based on the Taleban’s own reporting, appear to have focused mostly on ANSF, pro-government militias and foreign forces, district administrative centres and the “clearing of villages” in districts where the Taleban were already active, such as in Badakhshan’s Tagab district. Casualties reported by the Taleban (who are known to inflate the numbers of those they claim to have killed and injured), ranged from two to fifteen “enemies” killed per attack. The numbers of injured reported were in a similar range.

The announcement’s content

The announcement starts off by saying that “with the advent of spring it is again time to renew our Jihadi determination and operations.” In fact, Taleban operations did not stop over winter and the term “spring offensive” as well as the notion of a winter stop or lull in fighting has become increasingly meaningless. In this reading, this announcement is thus not so much about practical fighting, but rather a propagandistic instrument.

The statement remembers the late Amir ul Mu’mineen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahed under whose reign the Islamic Emirate “pacified 95 percent of our nation’s territory from wickedness, corruption and oppression, and vanquished the maligned and wicked.”

The stated aim of Operation Omari is ambitious and focuses on “clearing the remaining areas from enemy control and presence,” which is to be achieved by

large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country, martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds, and assassination of enemy commanders in urban centers. The present Operation will also employ all means at our disposal to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition that lowers the morale of the foreign invaders and their internal armed militias. By employing such a multifaceted strategy it is hoped that the foreign enemy will be demoralized and forced to evict our nation. In areas under the control of Mujahideen, mechanisms for good governance will be established so that our people can live a life of security and normalcy.

Although announcements in previous years also focused on the capture of territory, they tended to mention simey (Pashto for: areas), which usually refers to swathes of rural areas. Although last year’s statement did also refer to urban centres, it was mentioned only as a target for guerrilla warfare. This year, however, it seems the Taleban have set their sights on capturing both urban population centres and larger territory.

As part of this stated confidence – whether genuine or portrayed for propaganda purposes – with regard to expanding their realm of control, the Taleban for the first time in their spring offensive announcement also talk about post-conquest situations:

During the span of Operation Omari, in areas including villages and cities where the Islamic Emirate has established its rule, the lives and property of the dwellers will be safeguarded as is its duty. Therefore we call upon the dwellers of these areas, be they the professional classes or businessmen, not to fall prey to enemy propaganda and not to feel threatened by the Mujahideen. As it is our duty to protect and assist the wronged and helpless, so we will pay particular attention to the freedom of prisoners.

The 2016 spring offensive statement gave specific instructions to the fighters “to implement their operations in such a manner that takes pains to protect civilians and civil infrastructure” and described how the Taleban intended to make conquests easier by encouraging Afghan forces to defect and abandon the ANSF/NUG ranks:

Simultaneously with the present Operation the scholars, elders and leaders of the Islamic Emirate will open a dialogue with our countrymen in the enemy ranks to give up their opposition to the establishment of an Islamic government and join the ranks of the Mujahideen so as to safeguard them from the shame and failure of this World and the Hereafter.

The commission for outreach activities has indeed been gaining prominence within the Taleban structure and there have been repeated claims by the Taleban that the commission has been instrumental in causing large-scale defections by government forces (for instance in Helmand, Sar-e Pul, Uruzgan and Nuristan). During the past year, in addition to threats and violence, the Taleban appeared to have focused on trying to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of ANSF members, often by establishing channels of communication through their families or other social networks. In order to persuade ANSF members to quit fighting, the Taleban in several cases seem to have released ANSF soldiers they had captured on the battlefield and in some cases even paid them the needed transport fare to return to their home province – in exchange for the promise not to return to the ANSF. (There have however also been very different experiences, as illustrated by the gruesome killing of ANSF soldiers after the fall of the Jurm military base.)

The announcement’s vision

The statement’s vision of conquest, its instructions to protect civilians and infrastructure, and the emphasis on persuading government forces to defect were reportedly also part of the annual religious-ideological course for Taleban commanders and sub-commanders that was recently held in Pakistan. According to Taleban sources from Helmand, fighters who participated in the course received instructions to be prepared to rule the conquered lands. Reportedly, this was the first time that topics such as explicit instructions on how to treat the local population, public service providers and humanitarian organisations made up an extensive part of the three-month course that ended around mid-March this year. Instructions on how to persuade their enemies to surrender or join their ranks also constituted a significant part of the lectures and training.

Unlike the spring offensive announcements from previous years, the announcement for 2016 withheld details about specific targets of the Operation Omari. The targets were described in rather general terms, with reference only to “large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country, martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds, and assassination of enemy commanders in urban centers.”

In contrast, in the 2015 statement ahead of Operation Azm, the following categories of people were specified as targets:

…the foreign occupiers especially their permanent military bases, their intelligence and diplomatic centers, officials of the stooge regime, their military constellations, especially their intelligence, interior ministry and defense ministry officials and other pernicious individuals.

…top priority will be given to safeguarding and protecting the lives and properties of the civilian people, ” and “the Islamic Emirate has never and will never target religious and other educational institutions like mosques, madrassas, schools, universities, health centers like clinics and hospitals, public buildings and other projects of public welfare.

The instructions to avoid harming civilians and their property are not new; they have been issued many times before and have not significantly altered the fact that civilians are regularly harmed, and sometimes targeted, during Taleban operations. According to UNAMA – that continues to remind the Taleban that aid workers, civilian government officials, journalists, human rights defenders, judges and prosecutors are all to be considered civilians –  the Taleban was still responsible for more than 62% of the civilian casualties in 2015. With the lack of detail in their statement this year, the Taleban have avoided providing explicit rules as to who can be targeted in the new operation. There are so far no indications that the Taleban have actually adjusted their definition to ensure a greater protection of civilians in practice.

While proclaiming a stronger ambition than before to rule large parts of the population, the Taleban also seem determined to enhance their political image as potential benign rulers. They did not only repeat the explicit instructions to the fighters to protect public infrastructure and properties already included last year, but also claimed that “in areas under the control of Mujahideen, mechanisms for good governance will be established so that our people can live a life of security and normalcy.” (It is not completely clear what mechanisms the statement referes to, as structures already exist, such as the Taleban shadow judicial system and commissions that can be reached by petitioners and, occasionally, travel through Taleban-controlled areas to query the local population about commanders’ and fighters’ bevahiour.)

The overall spirit and tone of the Taleban’s propaganda to motivate its fighters seem more than ever couched in a vision of imminent victory. This seems to mirror the optimism that was found among Taleban foot soldiers after the short-lived capture of Kunduz in September 2015 and that to some extent has prevailed since then. While it will take some time to discern and understand the patterns of tactics employed by Taleban this year, sources within the movement indicate this may include trying to close in on provincial capitals and obstructing ANSF access to its major bases by blocking or threatening major logistics routes. This seems to match the Taleban’s build up of forces along key highways and supply routes over the past year, in particular in both the southwest (Helmand, Farah, Uruzgan) and the northeast (Kunduz, Badakshan, Baghlan and Sar-e Pul), and the warnings from Uruzgan, Helmand and other provinces about the possible imminent fall of districts through which major transport routes run.

Recent rumours within the Taleban movement moreover suggest, that in order to boost the morale of fighters, Taleban leader Akhtar Mansur may have travelled to Afghanistan. At the closing of the earlier-mentioned winter training course in Pakistan, Mansur delivered his speech on 18 March 2016 through a messenger, rather than attending the ceremony in person. Whether Akhtar Mansur is indeed in Afghanistan, or not, the rumours seem intended to portray confidence by suggesting that Taleban fighters believe they have made Afghanistan ‘safe’ enough for their leaders to return. It is perhaps also meant as a signal to Pakistan that it may no longer be in a unique position to manipulate the Taleban leadership by exploiting its need of Pakistan as an exclusive sanctuary.

The announcement’s impact on peace talks

The announcement of the spring offensive, finally, throws cold water on the hopes that the efforts towards peace talks, notably through the Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) platform, would lead to a drastic reduction of violence in the short run. The Afghan government, when initiating the QCG, had hoped the talks could at least prevent or postpone the 2016 spring offensive. The QCG process, however, has direly suffered from the choice to deliberately bypass the Taleban in favour of relying on Pakistan to bring the movement’s representatives to the table. (See also the latest postponement of the next round of quadrilateral talk and the strong criticism of Pakistan by the Afghan government.)

For those who wonder whether the spring offensive announcement was delayed because of efforts to bring the Taleban to the negotiation table, this does not appear to be the case. For the third year in a row, the announcement was made on or around the 5th of Rajab (based on the Islamic Hijri calendar, a lunar calendar, that falls behind the Gregorian calendar by about 10 days each year). In 2015, the spring offensive was on 22 April (5 Rajab was on 24 April), in 2014 it was on 12 May (5 Rajab was on 5 May). Next year, if the Taleban stick to the pattern, the announcement can be expected to be around 2 April 2017. The choice of this date was explained again in this year’s announcement, referring to “The fact that the 5th of Rajab ul Murajab year 15 (Hijri Lunar) was the day on which – under the leadership of Khalif Omar al Farooq – the Muslim armies fought and annihilated the vast infidel western army in the Battle of Yarmouk,” while adding the hope that the current operation would, in a similar fashion, result in “strategic victories and cleanse our beloved country from the presence of the remaining foreign invaders and their malignant and corrupt rebel servants.”

The Afghan government, in the meantime, responded in kind, calling the Taleban announcement “a hollow attempt to hide the consecutive defeats and setbacks they sustained during the last year” and “a bid to avenge the losses they suffered on the battlefield.” Ministry of Interior spokesperson Sediqi announced the governments counter-operation: Operation Shafaq, which he said would focus on the leaders of the group and would be one of the largest operations during the year.

 

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Thematic Category: War & Peace