The battle between the Security Forces (SFs) and the Taliban to establish effective control over areas across Afghanistan intensified further through 2016. According to the United States (US) Department of Defense (DoD), from January 1, 2016, through November 12, 2016, as many as 6,785 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) service members were killed and an additional 11,777 members were wounded. The DoD reported that the majority of ANDSF casualties continue to be the result of direct-fire attacks, with IED explosions and mine strikes accounting for much lower levels of casualties. ANDSF includes the Afghan National Army (ANA), Afghan Air Force (AAF), and Afghan National Police (ANP).
In contrast, fatalities among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Forces continued to decline, with 16 fatalities in 2016, as against 27 in 2015 and 75 in 2014. A total of 3,528 NATO personnel, including 2,392 US troopers, have been killed so far, since 2001. The increase in fatalities among ANDSF, on the one hand, and simultaneous decline in NATO fatalities, on the other, is primarily because NATO Forces have ceased operating as combat Forces (barring a few specific operations) since the beginning of 2015, and ANDSF has taken up the lead in fighting the terrorists.
Though there is no specific data on the number of terrorists killed in Afghanistan, according to partial data compiled by SATP, at least 11,469 terrorists were killed through 2016, as against 10,628 such fatalities in 2015. Most of the terrorists killed belonged to the Taliban.
According to US Force-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), as of November 26, 2016, the ANDSF assigned force strength was 322,585, including 174,950 of ANA and 147,635 of ANP. Meanwhile, according to US DoD, as of December 2016, the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) launched on January 1, 2015, to train, advise and assist the mission in Afghanistan, consisted of 13,332 U.S. and Coalition personnel. Of that number, 6,941 were U.S. forces and 6,391 were from 26 NATO allies and 12 non-NATO partners.
The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in its latest Quarterly Report released on January 30, 2017, offered bleak progress statistics about Afghanistan. An estimated 57.2 per cent of the country's 407 Districts are under Afghan Government control or influence as of November 15, 2016, a 6.2 percent decrease from the 63.4 percent reported in the preceding quarter in late August 2016, and a nearly 15 percent decrease since November 2015. Further, Afghanistan's largest independent news agency, Pajhwok Afghan News, on February 7, 2017, reported that as many as 704 people were killed and 563 others wounded in 137 attacks in January 2017 in 24 of the 34 Provinces of the country, showing a 10 per cent spike in attacks and a 17 percent rise in causalities compared to December 2016. Terrorists, SFs and civilians, including women and children, were among the casualties, but Pajhwok could not find the exact figures for each category. The Global Terrorism Index 2016 put Afghanistan at the second highest impact from terrorism, measuring 9.44 out of 10, after Iraq at 9.96 out of 10.
At this time, even though the Afghan Taliban has declared that it has no intention of participating in peace talks with the Afghan Government, despite international efforts, an attempt is being made to bring the rebels to the talks table. The first round of official peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan Government had taken place in the intervening night of July 7 and July 8, 2015, in Murree in Pakistan, with an agreement to meet again on August 15 and 16, 2015, in the Qatar capital, Doha. Before, the second round of talks could take place, the Afghan Government disclosed, on July 29, 2015, `The Government... based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban, died in April 2013 in Pakistan.` Subsequent disclosures indicated that Omar died while he was under treatment in Karachi. Soon, the Taliban split into two factions - one led by Pakistan's nominee, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor and another by Mullah Mohammad Rasool. The next round of talks failed to materialize. Mansoor was killed in a US air strike on May 21, 2016, in Pakistan, near the Afghan border. He was succeeded by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, but the possibility of talks ended at this stage.
Significantly, Tadamichi Yamamoto, head of UNAMA, in his quarterly briefing to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in New York on December 19, 2016, urged the Taliban to enter into direct talks with the Government, without preconditions, to prevent further bloodshed in the country. However, responding to the renewed call for talks by Yamamoto on December 23, 2016, Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, declared, `Our fight is for independence, and as long as foreign occupation forces are present here (in Afghanistan) any talk about peace and reconciliation is meaningless.` Further, on January 25, 2017, the Taliban group issued an open letter claiming, `The Afghans, as a nation ravaged by war for thirty eight long years, sincerely want to bring this war to an end. However they know - despite whatever reasons for previous wars - that the principle cause for the ongoing conflict is the presence of foreign occupying forces in our independent country.`
The fifth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China on the Afghan peace and reconciliation process had been held in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 18, 2016. The QCG reiterated that violence served no purpose and that peace negotiations remained the only option for a political settlement, and member countries resolved to use their respective leverages and influence to secure an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process. Separately, the third session of the trilateral `working group` of Russia, China and Pakistan on Afghanistan held in Moscow on December 27, 2016, discussed the current situation of Afghanistan decided to work towards delisting the Afghan Taliban from the world body's sanctions list in a move purportedly aimed at launching peaceful dialogue between Afghanistan's Government and the insurgent groups.
As talks with the Afghan Taliban hit a roadblock amidst a surge in violence, the Afghan Government signed a peace agreement on September 22, 2016, with the Hezb-e-Islami (HeI) led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, paving the way for the armed group's commander to make a political comeback despite allegations of war crimes during the 1990s. Once branded the `butcher of Kabul`, Hekmatyar was a prominent anti-Soviet commander who stands accused of killing thousands of people when his fighters fired on civilian areas of the capital city during the 1992-1996 civil war. The draft of the peace agreement had been signed on May 18, 2016, by HeI representatives and High Peace Council (HPC) officials.
While the Taliban has regained significant ground, it has now entered into a fratricidal turf war with its own splinters. Several deadly clashes have taken place across the country, particularly in western provinces, following the announcement of the death of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. In the latest incident of infighting among the Taliban factions, on January 8, 2017, at least ten Taliban cadres were killed in Bakwa District in a landmine explosion orchestrated by a rival group in Farah Province. Indeed, the Islamic State (IS or Daesh) faction, which made inroads into Afghanistan subsequent to the June 2014 release of Daesh's 'world domination map', has benefited from Taliban infighting, taking recruits from Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda defectors. But, the U.S. military and its Afghan partners have managed to push back Daesh's presence in the country from nearly a dozen Districts to just two or three. Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, spokesman of US Army in Afghanistan, thus asserted, on December 22, 2016, `A year ago, U.S. commanders estimated the strength of the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan at between 1,500 and 3,000 members. Today, it is about 1,000. We think we've significantly reduced that presence.`
Afghanistan's principal problem, however, remains Pakistan. Exposing Islamabad's role, Afghanistan's Permanent Representative to the UN, Mahmoud Saikal, stated, on January 11, 2017, `The cycle of violence and insecurity in Afghanistan, and our part of the world is inextricably linked to the presence of sanctuaries and safe-havens in the region, from which extremist groups are sustained and enjoy an incessant flow of political, financial, material and logistical support for the continuation of their malicious activities.` Endorsing Afghanistan's view that terrorists are able to strike whenever they want to because of the existence of terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan, US Defense Secretary General James Mattis declared, on January 12, 2017, `Sanctuaries and freedom of movement for the Afghan Taliban and associated militant networks inside Pakistani territory is a key operational issue faced by the Afghan security forces.` Further, on February 9, 2017, General John Nicholson, commander of the US forces and the NATO-led RSM in Afghanistan added, `The Taliban and Haqqani network are the greatest threats to security in Afghanistan. Their senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens.`
No end is presently visible for Afghanistan's crisis. Reaffirming US support to the Afghan Government and SFs on January 5, 2017, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook noted, `Afghanistan is still dangerous and challenges there remain. We will continue to provide the kind of support we can to bolster the Afghan security forces.`
Afghan Forces are reeling under circumstances created by the withdrawal of an overwhelming proportion of NATO Forces, though the small remaining contingents continue to provide active support. There is, however, far greater recognition today of Pakistan's enduring mischief in Afghanistan, and a growing willingness among engaged powers to impose costs on Islamabad for its malfeasance. With the change of regime in Washington, there is an expectation that this will translated into effective policy. It remains to be seen whether this will exercise sufficient pressure on Islamabad to act against the Taliban. Absent a conclusive defeat inflicted on the Taliban, there is little hope of peace in this war wracked nation.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management