With the Taliban’s declaration of Spring Offensive, fighting is likely to pick up the usual momentum. Last year was a turbulent year for the Afghan government, its security forces and the people. Taliban undertook numerous tactical attacks alongside takeover of small and medium size urban centres for varying duration. Alongside, Taliban went through leadership transformation process after the death of Mullah Omar; it was a ferocious spell of intra-Taliban fighting. In the meanwhile, Daesh and Afghan Taliban fell apart, and the influence of Daesh in Afghanistan began to melt down. Taliban had released a statement in 2015 telling Daesh that “The Islamic Emirate does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims.” Many Taliban leaders who had crossed over to Daesh’s Khorasan chapter have returned to the fold of Taliban leadership. They have all accepted Mullah Akhtar Mansur as their leader. On April 11, a Taliban statement said that scores of Daesh members re-joined the Taliban in eastern Nangarhar province.
Struggle for leadership amongst Afghan Taliban factions has come to a close and all notable groups have ended up under the command of Mullah Akhtar Mansur. Lastly, Mullah Omar’s son Yaqoob, and brother Manan have also joined Mansur and have been elevated to high positions. Yaqoob has been given a seat on the executive council (Rahbari Shura) alongside leadership of Military Commission in 15 provinces out of 34. Manan would head Preaching and Guidance Commission and also serve as member of executive council; both have assumed their positions. The announcement came just days after senior leader Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir declared allegiance to Mullah Mansur. Now the only hold out is Mullah Rasool. It was quite a tall order for Mansur to completely unify a fractured organisation. Though there will always be rejectionists, the question is how much of a threat such players will continue to pose. For now, Taliban have re-established their hierarchical and unitary organization.
Taliban are now better placed as a fighting force. “Mansur is preparing for a major military push, more spectacular victories against the government this year,” Mullah Qasem, a retired Taliban commander in Helmand, told AFP. Mansur is mobilising fighters for major offensives in up to six provinces. Once he emerges victorious, not many commanders will dare to question his authority, Qasem added.
Afghan forces face their second summer fighting season without the full support of NATO, which ended its combat mission in December 2014. Afghan government has successfully courted the occupation forces to delay a planned drawdown of nearly 13,000 troops stationed in the country, and maintain its air power and military support. NATO faces growing pressure from within to expand its military role as Afghan forces struggle with high casualties and desertions; and as efforts to restart Taliban peace talks falter again and again. The morale of Taliban fighters is high, whereas Afghan forces are fighting for survival. “This will be a very tough year for Afghan forces, beset by mismanagement and corruption,” Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil recently told AFP.
Last year, fall of Kunduz marked the first time a major Afghan city was lost to the Taliban since 2001. With their new found strength, 2016′s fighting season may bring more startling successes for Taliban in Kandahar, Helmand, and Badakhshan alike. The Afghan government could face a tall task. The NATO and Afghan officials have said they expect very tough combat in 2016. According to NATO commanders, the Taliban exert control over only six percent of Afghanistan but up to a third of the country is at risk from the insurgents and government forces control no more than 70 percent of the country’s territory. During 2015, even during biting winter, heavy fighting continued across Afghanistan, from Kunduz, in the north to Helmand province bordering Pakistan in the south.
Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive on April 12, pledging to launch large-scale offensives against government strongholds backed by suicide and guerrilla attacks to drive Afghanistan’s Western-backed government from power. The offensive is codenamed “Omari Operations”. Their statement said they would “employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country” during the offensive. “With the advent of spring it is again time for us to renew our Jihadi determination and operations. Hence the Islamic Emirate’s leadership eagerly announces this year’s Jihadi Operation in honour of the movement’s founder and first leader, the late Amirul Mu’mineen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” the statement read. “Let’s prepare for decisive strikes against the enemy purely for the sake of Allah with strong determination and high spirits,” Mansur told his followers in a recent message posted on the Taliban website.
The Council said the operation will result into “strategic victories and cleanse the country from the presence of the remaining foreign invaders and their malignant and corrupt rebel servants.” The Taliban statement further said “Operation Omari” was initiated and planned by the group’s leadership, the leaders of the military commission as well as their military planners. “Similarly the operation will employ large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country, martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds, and assassination of enemy commanders in urban centres. 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,” the statement said.
In line with recent statements, it also said that Taliban would establish good governance in areas it controlled and avoid civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. New Taliban military gains in recent months have helped cement Mansur’s authority by buffing his credentials as a commander. His resurgent group has opened new battlefronts across Afghanistan with Afghan forces struggling to beat back the expanding insurgency.
The Taliban further that said their scholars, elders and leaders will open a dialogue with the government forces to give up their opposition to the group and join their ranks to safeguard them. This is in tandem with Afghan government’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. A meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) comprising of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States and China is expected later this month to re-examine the prospects of jump starting intra-Afghan dialogue. The QCG had earlier adopted a roadmap stipulating the stages and steps in the process from which flowed the schedule for the possible start of the dialogue process between representatives of the Afghan government and Taliban.
Pakistan would continue to play a positive role for peace in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is in no position to dictate to Taliban. Thus one has to be cautious while attaching timelines and deadlines or preconditions to the process. Rather, it is more important to keep the process on track and foil the attempts to derail it.
A breakthrough could eventually be achieved if the process continues; and at appropriate time QCG could decide on ways to deal with groups that do not join the talks. A negotiated settlement of the Afghan dispute is not only in the interest of Afghanistan but also those of the regional players. From the perspective of art and science of warfare, it will be interesting to sees the fighting and negotiations proceed in tandem.
Onus to secure any reduction in violence through cease fire(s) rests with the Afghan government through a package of political concessions that could, step by step, induct the Taliban into Afghanistan’s mainstream political structures. Earlier the Afghan government comes out with such a package, better it would be for the peace process. Afghan government is poised to be loser in the battlefield and each combat victory would result in further entrenching by the Taliban.
[A variant of this column carried by The nation on April 18, 2016 under the caption: Spring offensive and Peace process].
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.