War & Peace

Surrounding the Cities: The meaning of the latest battle for Farah (I)


In this photograph taken on May 19, 2018, Afghan security forces patrol, after recapturing control of the city from Taliban militants, in Farah. Afghan commandos and US air strikes have driven the Taliban to the outskirts of Farah city, officials said May 16, after a day-long battle to prevent the insurgents from seizing the western provincial capital. AFP PHOTO/HAMEED KHAN

In this photograph taken on May 19, 2018, Afghan security forces patrol, after recapturing control of the city from Taliban militants, in Farah. Afghan commandos and US air strikes have driven the Taliban to the outskirts of Farah city, officials said May 16, after a day-long battle to prevent the insurgents from seizing the western provincial capital. AFP PHOTO/HAMEED KHAN

An attack on Farah city had long been feared. For years now, the Taleban have been taking control of the provincial capital’s outlying districts and inching their way towards the central hub. For a few days in mid-May, it looked as though the Taleban were about to take Farah city, which would have been their most significant military triumph since capturing Kunduz for two weeks in 2015. Their strategy of consolidating control over rural areas then digging in at a provincial centre’s outskirts before launching an attack appears to be an increasing trend. While they lost the battle in Farah on this occasion, the Taleban still pose a serious threat to the area. AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig together with Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Rohullah Soroush and Obaid Ali unpack the attack and its aftermath.

This is the first of two dispatches examining the recent attack on the city of Farah. This first dispatch focuses on the attack and its aftermath. The second contextualises the attack in light of post-2001 developments in Farah.

The Farah attack

The Taleban attacked the provincial capital of Farah (1) in the early hours of 15 May. This was on day 21 of their annual military campaign announced earlier in April and just a few days before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Within a few hours they had pushed through to the central chowk (junction) of the city. According to a local government military spokesman (quoted here), the Taleban set up checkpoints around the city and checked identity cards, trying to prevent people from fleeing. The Taleban had warned citizens over social media to stay indoors “and pray.” Many radio and television channels in the province stopped broadcasting, fearing for their employees’ lives, according to media watchdog Nai.

The Taleban started their attack at around two am from Regi and Chahar Bagh, areas to the immediate northeast and west of the city centre where the Taleban had concentrated their forces (media reports here and here).

During the first attack on 15 May, the Taleban moved towards Zara Ferqa, the old army division headquarters, now defunct, around three kilometres outside the city centre (media report in Dari here), and from there to the provincial headquarters of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), just south of it and located only 800 metres away from the provincial governor’s compound. The same morning, media footage from Farah showed black smoke rising above the NDS compound, although its defenders held out.

All three areas, Regi, Chahar Bagh and Zara Ferqa, are situated on the south bank of Farah River, which runs to the north of the city. It used to be the demarcation line between government and Taleban-held areas. That the Taleban took up positions there and were able to retreat to them and hold them after their attack was pushed back, demonstrates the continued threat to Farah city.

The Taleban also attacked the compounds of Farah’s police districts three and four, south of the NDS and the provincial prison, which is next to the provincial headquarters of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Afghan media reported that they used “heavy and light weapons.” They also employed suicide attackers against the police and, according to local reports, including several US-made armoured Humvee vehicles captured from Afghan forces. They had apparently been able to capture these during previous raids on police posts in Bala Boluk district in February, March and on 11 May 2018 as well as in Farah city on 11 May 2018  (more about the use of this weapon in this AAN analysis) – a clear indication that this attack had not come out of the blue.

Video clips also appeared on social media showing fighters inside the city seizing more weapons, ammunition and military vehicles from Afghan security forces. Most of this footage was filmed the first morning. Photos posted on social media also showed Taleban ‘special forces’ in gear not dissimilartothat of the Afghan army. In January 2018 the governor’s spokesman, Nasser Mehri, told Kabul-based daily Etilaat-e Roz that the local Taleban were equipped with helmet cameras and night-vision goggles.

According to Farid Bakhtawar, head of the provincial council, local government officials did manage to flee the city (see here). There were also reports that provincial governor Basir Salangi, a former mujahedin commander who was appointed in January 2018 (2), had left the city the night before fighting broke out and had relocated to a military base “a few miles from the city”, as the New York Times reported quoting “numerous local officials.” Ahmad Shah Fetrat, a local journalist in the city, told AAN “The city is empty, government offices, schools and shops are closed.” Tolo News quoted a local citizen as saying “people are running from the city.”

The Taleban, however, were unable to capture Farah airport’s runway or prevent reinforcements, particular of Afghan army commandos, arriving from Herat. Police special forces arrived from Kandahar (media report here) and Afghan and US air forces also carried out a number of airstrikes. Local journalists in the provincial capital confirmed to AAN that they had seen US and Afghan helicopters flying over the city, and NATO’s Resolute Support mission also confirmed US airstrikes in the province (read here and here).

In the afternoon of 15 May, government forces managed to push back the attackers to the Regi area (media report here). There were also reports about Taleban sheltering in residential areas within the city’s limits, from which they had driven out residents.

On 17 May, new fighting broke out “in some key parts of the city,” according to Afghan media reports (for example here and here), with attacks on the ANP headquarters, the prison and the residence of the head of the provincial council. According to Reuters, at least one more suicide bomb attack was launched near the police headquarters. The third police district reportedly fell to the Taleban. The same day, the Ministry of Education ordered that all schools in the province remain closed “till the situation has improved”. Fighting subsided after a few hours of battle; the city has been quiet since.

According to governor Salangi, about 300 Taleban, 15 soldiers, ten policemen and five civilians were killed during the first day of fighting. These figures are likely too low, though. The Taleban claimed the number of their casualties was much lower, in the single digits only. Independent sources estimated that 180 people had been killed from all sides, but without differentiating how many from each. The Interior Ministry in Kabul confirmed that provincial deputy police chief Abdul Razeq Sherzad was among the injured.

Salangi said 1,000 Taleban had been involved in the attack, with another 1,000 reinforcements brought in during the day on 15 May. The numbers cannot be confirmed, but AAN heard from several sources that the Taleban had gathered fighters from Farah, Helmand and Herat’s Shindand district (see this AAN analysis).

An attack foretold

An attack on Farah city had long been feared. The Taleban have systematically worked their way towards the city over many years (see the second dispatch), and their efforts have intensified over recent months.

Haji Khair Muhammad Nurzai, deputy head of Farah’s provincial council, told AAN in January 2018 that Mullah Muzammel, the Taleban’s shadow governor during an earlier, failed attempt to capture Farah city in late September/early October 2017, had now become the commander of the Taleban’s south-western military zone. This had given him the means to gather a larger number of fighters. AAN had already heard in January 2018 that 300 to 400 Taleban from the three provinces under the command of a Mullah Daud had started attacking government security posts and establishing makeshift checkpoints on the Herat-Farah road to try to find and sometimes kill government officials or staff working for international NGOs. One such incident was reported by Jamila Amini, a member of Farah’s provincial assembly, who told the media on 6 January 2018 that three or four out of twenty bus passengers had been abducted by the Taleban (she did not give the exact location). According to her, those abducted had been former police and government employees (read here).

On 28 February 2018, the Washington Post reported that the Taleban were “over running several security outposts, killing at least 43 policemen and wounding more than 50,” and crossing “the dried Farah Rud River, a natural barrier to the city, and attack[ing] a suburban outpost.” At that time in January 2018, fighting had already been going on for 20 days, and Gulbahar Mujahed, the province’s acting police chief, had been killed by a roadside bomb. Three days later Muhammad Ismail, intelligence chief of Poshtrud district, was also killed in a Taleban ambush.

A provincial council member warned Afghan media, that “every night five to ten security force members are killed and Taleban seize their equipment. But the government so far has not done anything to tackle the issue” (here and here). Approximately 7,000 families had fled the area, according to the local representative of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations.

In late March, Afghan commandos attacked a Taleban commanders meeting in Bala Boluk district, but this did not prevent the 15 May attack on the provincial capital.

In late April 2018, two weeks before the recent offensive, members of Farah’s provincial council expressed concern over the increase in Taleban control throughouttheir province. Deputy council head,Khair Muhammad Nurzai, was quoted by the Afghan media as saying that three districts – Bakwa, Khak-e Safid and Gulestan – were under the Taleban’s complete control, although this claim was later denied by provincial police chief Sherzad. Gul Ahmad A’azami, an MP from Farah,said six districts were largely controlled by the Taleban – Bakwa, Gulestan, Poshtrud, Bala Boluk, Anar Dara and Khak-e Safid – with government presence limited to the immediate district centres. Just before the latest attack on the city in mid-May, local sources had told the author that, in fact, this was the case in all of Farah province’s ten rural districts. In the remaining four districts, Purchaman, Qala-ye Kah, Shib Koh and Lash wa Juwayn, the government was comparatively stronger, according to senator A’azami .

The centre of Anar Dara was briefly overrun by the Taleban in March 2018, as was Shebkoh centre in October 2017. In November 2017, the Afghan army had to use helicopters in Khak-e Safid’s district centre bazaar to repulse a Taleban attack.

A quarter of all provincial centres are under threat

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence has indirectly confirmed the Taleban’s strategy of surrounding provincial cities. On 16 May 2018 its spokesman, Muhammad Radmanesh, said with some understatement and reacting to a media query: “Yes. (…) a few cities are under pressure.”

Apart from Farah city, he listed Maimana (Faryab), Pul-e Khumri (Baghlan), Tirinkot (Uruzgan), Kunduz and also Faizabad (Badakhshan). The media report, also added Ghazni. There, intense fighting was reported in two districts on the same day. One of these districts – Zana Khan – is just outside the provincial capital. Fighting in the province continues.

Lashkargah (Helmand) and Sar-e Pul (where incidents are underreported) could also be put into this category, although the immediate pressure on the latter has been somewhat relieved by the military successes of both Afghan and US troops, part of President Trump’s mini-surge (AAN analysis here), by taking back Nawadistrict centre just outside Lashkargah from the Taleban in July 2017 (media report here). This means that more than a quarter of the country’s 34 provincial centres face a threat from the Taleban.

Kabul could be added to this list, although the threat there is of a different nature; while the country’s capital is not close to falling to the Taleban, it is under constant threat of suicide and so-called complex attacks on strategic installations. This assessment has frequently been confirmed by UNAMA’s regular reportingon civilian casualties, which has shown for a few years now that Kabul suffers a disproportionately high number of attacks. In 2017, “16 per cent of all civilian casualties during the year occurring from such attacks in Kabul city.” Kabul province also saw the highest number of civilian casualties of the country’s provinces. Some Afghan politicians, such as Interior Minister Wais Barmak, have spoken about a city “under siege,” and Kabulis definitely feel this (see, for example, this report by Afghan journalist and former AAN colleague Ali Latifi). This has also been confirmed in Europe where some governments are talking security threats down in the context of their policy of deporting rejected Afghan asylum seekers. Recently, on 9 March 2018, the Cournationale du droit d’asile, France’s highest asylum court, has described Kabul as a “high-intensity situation of indiscriminate violence” (see here).

Reports by AAN and others have shown for a long time how the Taleban have implemented their strategy, moving slowly towards and encircling provincial centres. The most successful example was – and still is – Kunduz. Although the Taleban quickly lost control of the provincial capital in 2015 – and only came close to maintaining some control in 2016 and 2017, they haverepeatedly shownthat they have been able to penetrate the city, reaching its very centre. Symbolic snapshots taken at the city’s central chowk (junction) are of symbolic value for them. They did the same at Farah’s central chowk in the morning of 15 May 2018 after sweeping in there.

In Kunduz, the Taleban built a fundament from which they could move forward for years to come. As this AAN report showed, they started creating footholds in Pashtun pockets there as early as 2005 and increased their military activity from 2009 onwards (see how the build-up occurred in this AAN dossier). Establishing positions near important road links has also been part of their strategy, such as near the Ring Road in the districts of Baghlan-e Jadid and Dand-e Ghoriin Baghlan province, to the south of Kunduz (see this AAN analysis), with the aim of creating options to block government troop reinforcements during attacks in Kunduz (see here). This is what happened during their successful attack on Kunduz in 2015 (AAN analysis here).

The Taleban had in fact closed in on Kunduz city before this (AAN report here), as seen by their control over most rural districts, much like in Farah. Repeated government ‘clearance operations’ have been unable to permanently drive them out, even from the city’s outskirts where their positions can be seen with the naked eye (see here). Control over most districts has changed hands frequently between the insurgents and the government. The last Taleban takeover happened in Qala-ye Zal district, again, in mid-April 2018 (media report here; earlier AAN analysis here).

As in Farah, Taleban advances in Kunduz have been made possible by a combination of factors such as factional conflictswithin the provincial administration (AAN analysis here), weak leadership and a lack of cooperation among the different security forces (see here), as well asthe misrule of pro-government auxiliary armed forces (see here). Kunduz’ situation was exacerbated further by ethnic tensions and the settling of old scores along these lines (see an early Human Rights Watch report here).

Although Baghlan’s situation is less acute than that of Kunduz, the environs of its provincial centre Pul-e Khumri have seen a build-up of Taleban control and repeated low-level fighting since 2014 (AAN report here). The outskirts of the town are also where the Taleban blew up a power line pylon in March, which provides electricity to Kabul – power is still patchy as we write (media report here). That the government is still unable to repair the damage is testament to the fact that it does not have a grip on the area. The current fighting over Talawa Barfak district in Baghlan is part of the regional picture, as its centre controls an alternative route between the Kabul region and Kunduz. Talawa Barfak centre was captured by the Taleban on 8 May 2018 and recaptured by governments on 18 May 2018 (media report here), a repetition of events in March 2017 (media report here).

Further south, from Ghazni, the New York Times reported on 9 May 2018 that the city was “on the brink of falling to the Taliban”as“an increasing number of insurgents live openly in the city. Their fighters regularly kill officials [and] a Taliban court claims jurisdiction over the city.” Already in December 2017, the Afghan news agency Pajhwok had quoted Hassan Raza Yousufi, a member of Ghazni’s Provincial Council, that “[b]usinessmen, Provincial Council members, governor house officials and other individuals give taxes to the Taliban.” According to the same report there are frequent attacks on police stations in the city. Deputy provincial governor Muhammad Aref Nuri was quoted as saying in November 2017 (source: BBC Monitoring) that there had been16 assassinations in the past eight months in the city.

The Taleban had raided Ghazni city before, on 14 September 2015 (an AAN’s reconstruction of events here). During that attack, the Taleban did not only storm the provincial prison but they also ransacked the local NDS office, capturing intelligence files. This attack, however, was not a means to take over the city. Given certain parallels, it might suggest that the recent attack in Farah was not designed to capture or hold Farah either, but to strike and show the vulnerability of the Afghan forces and to stay in positions nearby. The Taleban’s modus operandi of only briefly capturing district centres, where government forces have repeatedly been forced to react and recapture, might be part of this strategy. This is not to say the Taleban would be able to hold a large provincial city for a longer period.

Over the past few months, frequent fighting hasalso been reported from Deh-e Yak, Khwaja Omari and Andar district, all three situated just outside Ghazni city. For example, the Taleban laid siege on Andar district in October 2017, attacked Deh-e Yak several times in November 2017, and temporarily overran Khwaja Omari in April 2018, shooting dead the district governor and police chief. AAN heard from locals that they dug a trench across that road, ambushing approaching vehicles of the security forces.

Information AAN received from local sources indicates that the attack on Jaghatu in particular, where the district headquarters was defended by only 15 to 20 police and NDS was orchestrated by the Taleban in order to seize weapons. According to these reports, they took a ranger vehicle and a mortar and burned whatthey could not carry. They set fire to the police HQ building as well. Reinforcements arrived very late, and could only retrieve the bodies of the 11 dead and five injured.

While AAN has covered the situation in Helmand and around Lashkargah in two long dispatches (see here and here) and in Faryab as well as its centre, Maimana, which is surrounded in all but one direction, less information is available for Uruzgan and Sar-e Pul provinces.

But reports of fighting near the two provincial centres, Tirinkot and Sar-e Pul, are frequent. Local reports from Uruzgan indicate that the situation is not greatly different from that in Farah; with most districts – except their immediate centres – under Taleban control and their fighters in the vicinity of the provincial centre. The last media reports are about a – failed – Taleban attempt to take over the centre of Chinartu district in January 2018 (here), both sides suffering consider casualties during fighting near Chora district centre in March and late May. On 31 May, Major Muhammad Sadiq, spokeman for Atal Military Corps 205, a military corp operate in the southern region of the country, told VOA Pashto that they had killed 12 Taleban in their air and ground attacks. He said that they had recaptured a number of areas of Chora district from the insurgents and that there was no risk of Chora district collapsing. The Taleban’s spokesman, on the other hand, tweeted on 30 May that they had captured Chora district. There was also a report in May that most voter registration centres in the province were“closed due to insecurity.”In Sar-ePul, the Taleban have brought relative stability to Kohistanat, a district they have controlled since 2015, while frequently threatening Sayyad district, which is next to the provincial capital, as well as Sancharak district. A rare indication of the complicated situation in Sar-e Pul city was given by the Afghan election observer organisation, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA) in September 2017, when a representative told AAN (see here) that the Independent Election Commission only managed to access the provincial capital for its polling centre assessment. In general, though, remote Sar-e Pul is more like an area of retreat for Taleban fighters in provinces nearby, including Jawzjan and Faryab.

Finally, it is no coincidence that the three provinces withthe highest number of districts under Taleban control – Uruzgan, Kunduz and Helmand (according to the US military – USFOR-A) – are all provinces where the provincial capital is also under threat (quoted from 30 April 2018 SIGAR quarterly, see here):

USFOR-A identified the provinces with the largest percentage of insurgent-controlled or -influenced districts as Uruzgan Province, with four of its six districts under insurgent control or influence, Kunduz Province (five of seven districts), and Helmand Province (nine of 14 districts), all unchanged since last quarter.

Conclusion: A war of attrition and a waiting game

The Taleban strategy of surrounding and putting pressure on a number of Afghan provincial centres might be a deliberate strategy or just the coincidental outcome of their efforts to ensure territorial gain. Despite some fluctuation in their territorial gains, the Taleban have managed to establish and hold positions that are threat to a number of key population centres and national highways. From there, they can almost strike at will; government troops are mostly on the defensive and constantly forced to react by sending in the few élite troops that they have – which may well lead to their attrition (see AAN analysis here).

The Taleban apply a similar modus operandi to district centres, with a strategy that could be called assault-and-retreat. The fact that the Afghan Minister of Defence recently called (media report here) 216 of the 407 districts “unsecure” reflects that this strategy is both paying off and widespread.

Given the slow pace of the Taleban’s actual territorial gains, around one per cent per quarter according to figures given in the most recent SIGAR quarterly report in April 2018, this kind of war could go on for a long time. It depends on which side can hold its breath for longest, the insurgents or the Afghan government and its allies. It could also depend on which of them may be prepared to take a bold step to break out of this vicious circle, vicious mainly for the Afghan people and the country’s infrastructure.

With regards to Farah, the fact that the Taleban were only pushed back to positions just outside the provincial capital from where they started their attack means that new attacks can be expected. Farah is only one example for a situation that prevails in at least a quarter of Afghanistan’s provinces. It remains to be seen what happens if they acquire the capacity to attack several provincial capitals at the same time.

 

 

 

(1) The capital of Farah is inhabited by between 38,000 to 108,000 people depending on different sources. The lower figure stems from the Afghan Ministry of Urban Development and Housing’s report, “State of Afghan Cities” (2015) – it also gives 5,299 “dwelling units” for the city; the higher figures is from the Afghan Central Statistics Office 2012.

The term “city” for Farah should be taken with a pinch of salt. As many other provincial and most district centres, it does not have much of an urban character, with most buildings being low and many of traditional style. They are more village-like, and – more importantly – there is not much infrastructure that holds them together.

(2) His predecessor had stepped down following local protests regarding corruption and deteriorating security, citinginterference by powerful “individuals” in his work (see here).

 

 

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