On 12 May, the Taliban commenced their annual spring offensive with a series of attacks that left over a dozen killed and many more injured in the Afghan provinces of Helmand, Ghazni, Nangarhar, Parwan and Kabul. Calling it ‘Khaibar’, after the Battle of Khaibar – that took place in Islamic year 629 (Gregorian year 1231) where Muslim forces, under the Muhammad’s leadership, attacked and defeated the Jews living in Khaibar oasis – the Taliban stated that they chose Khaibar because of the “significance of this juncture in this current era” which we can infer as a remark on the security transition process and the looming withdrawal of foreign troops by the end of year.
Intersecting with the Afghan presidential elections, this year’s spring offensive could prove to be the most difficult fighting season yet. Moreover, adding to local contentions will be an overstretched Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that will struggle to cope with the added responsibilities that have been transitioned to them while also having to secure the presidential elections for a second round that will take place on 14 June.
According to the UN, in the first 3 months of 2014, “more than 4,600 security incidents” occurred across Afghanistan. This “represented a 24 percent increase in violence compared to the same period last year.”Thus, the spring offensive will see this trend continue and will pose a major test for the ANSF, the political transition, and the last phase of the security transition.
The Taliban describe their spring offensive as being “against the invaders and their spineless backers.” The target of the offensive has remained largely the same as in the previous years. The Taliban have targeted foreigners whom they broadly classify as “spies, military and civilian contractors” and locals such as “high ranking government officials, cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, security officials, officers in the Interior and Foreign Ministries, attorneys and judges that prosecute Mujahideen as well as agents in the National Directorate.”
In line with these targets, the start of the Taliban offensive saw attacks on both government officials (including ministers), and ISAF troops.
Though the attacks were aimed at soft targets, they did not go unnoticed. In fact, it sent a clear message to the Afghan government, the NATO-led ISAF forces, and the Afghan forces that they were ready and prepared for the summer fighting season. Moreover, in this year’s spring offensive the Taliban have tried to differentiate this spring’s operation from previous years indicating that this year’s fighting season will be the most challenging yet. The Taliban have claimed that they “will exert extra efforts and utilize complex military techniques in planning their current year spring operations.”
The Taliban have pledged to use “various modern military techniques” such as “Back-breaking martyrdom strikes, infiltrator operations (insider attacks), targeting large and well fortified enemy bases with heavy weapons and missiles as well as carrying out head-on offensive operations.”
The Taliban say they will use these techniques on primary targets such as military bases, diplomatic centers, military and civilian convoys and all other facilities belonging to foreigners, ministry of interior and national directorate of security. While it will be difficult for the Taliban to cause huge losses to ISAF forces given that they are no longer in a combat role but advisory ones, the ANSF are still highly vulnerable to insurgent attacks. Of the 13,729 casualties incurred by the ANSF in the past 13 years, most have taken place in the last three years when local forces began assuming security responsibilities from foreign troops.
While the ANSF have shown progress in holding “their own against the insurgency” and preventing them from making any territorial or kinetic gains, they still continue to face grim obstacles in becoming an enduring and sustainable force. The annual Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan by the US Department of Defense, prepared by a division of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff reveals that despite ISAF efforts to develop ANSF capabilities, they still “require more time and effort to close four key high-end capability gaps.” These gaps are “air support, intelligence enterprise, special operations, and Afghan security ministry capacity.” At present, the ASNF are said to be “fully fielded and show improvement in combined arms employment, utilization of indirect fire systems and organised evacuation.”
However, whether this will be enough to disrupt insurgent activities this spring, and especially when the ASNF’s resources will be overly extended to protect the election run-off, remains to be seen.
The US Department of Defense report claims that in 2013, “several violence indicators” were lower than in 2012. Enemy-initiated attacks were said to have declined by two per cent; complex attacks having declined by eight per cent; and the use of improvised explosive devices having declined by 24 per cent. Yet, last year’s spring fighting season witnessed the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) and Afghan National Police’s (ANP) inability to disrupt Taliban activities, a claim also made by the same report. In actuality, the ANSF and civilian casualties had increased to unprecedented levels in 2013 – a trend that could possibly increase, making this year’s spring offensive more daunting.
Additionally, the spring fighting season could also cause a setback to the ISAF’s security transition plans and its ability to fill the remaining gaps in the ANSF, which is considered critical to overall development. Furthermore, as the existing government is preoccupied with preparations to transfer power to a new leader, it has rendered its functionaries ill-prepared to properly execute its responsibilities and services, thus making it, and the public, susceptible to any instability in the coming months.
However, if local forces could, with the help of NATO-led ISAF forces, scramble to ensure “joint coordination in support of the political transition” and is able to “assure that Afghans are postured for the 2014 fighting seasons,” they could possibly change the odds in their favor.