Rise in Taliban Attacks: Following Through on a Promise

On September 17, 2019 a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at a political rally that President Ashraf Ghani was attending in the Parwan Province in Afghanistan. Following the dissolving of the peace talks between the United States and the Taliban during the week of September 9, 2019, the Taliban has renewed threats against American and Afghan troops in the region and due to this, President Ghani has been limiting his political campaigning to virtual options such as Skype. The Taliban claimed that the target was Afghan soldiers however, the group has made statements that any Afghan citizen who attends these rallies will be risking their safety and inviting violence against them. The first attack killed 48 people.

A second bombing occurred on the same day in Kabul, Afghanistan close to the city’s Massoud Square, which is near an Afghan army base as well as the U.S. Embassy. This is the same location as the explosion on September 5, 2019 which resulted in the death of an American service member and ended the U.S.-Taliban peace talks. All of this violence comes as Afghanistan faces Presidential elections on September 28, 2019. President Ghani is currently being targeted by the Taliban due to him praising the fact that the peace talks dissolved as neither he nor the Afghanistan government were involved.

However, following the Taliban claiming responsibility for the attacks, their chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, has stated that they are open to continue the peace talks with the United States. Stanikzai claims that the Taliban did nothing wrong by continuing to carry out attacks during the peace talks as the United States had openly stated that they had killed Taliban members as well during the process. President Ghani states that these continued attacks show that the Taliban will not change.

Less than 24 hours later, another Taliban attack occurred on September 19, 2019 outside a hospital in the province of Zabul which left 20 people dead and 95 others wounded. A senior defense ministry official stated that the Taliban was targeting a training base for the National Directorate of Security (NDS) however parked the vehicle outside of the hospital. President Trump has made it clear that he will not continue peace talks as long as these attacks continue. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement on September 19 that the United States will be pulling funds away from Afghanistan due to corruption within the government.

Due to developments in the past two weeks, there is currently a question concerning the future of the Afghan region. With the dissolution of the peace talks, rumors have been circulating that President Trump is interested in withdrawing all troops from the Afghanistan region, a decision which has been a goal for the United States for years. However, with the end of the talks came more destabilization in the region. The Taliban has not been silent regarding their opinion on the cancellation of the peace talks and these recent attacks shows their willingness to follow through with their threats. The Taliban has openly stated that it will violently disrupt the elections and voting, attempting to stop the September election. A recent statement made by the Taliban as of September 19 reaffirms the potential violence against voters on the 28th of September.

President Ashraf Ghani has previously stated that he was running for reelection in 2019 as he still wishes to “finish the job” and bring peace to his region after nearly 18 years. However former President Hamid Karzai opposes holding these elections due to the belief that Afghanistan is not free and peaceful, coupled with the threats made by the Taliban that the elections may be targeted.

The explosion that occurred at President Ghani’s rally left women and children dead, a tactical move which is generally controversial. When a group chooses to attack indiscriminately, killing women and children, there is generally international backlash, condemnation and widespread local fear of the group. This kind of display shows how far the Taliban is willing to go as well as the intimidation techniques that they are displaying ahead of the election. The previous promise of violence ahead of the election, as well as at the election, is an attempt to dissuade Afghan citizens from turning up to vote during the late-September polling. These recent attacks help to solidify the validity of their previous threats.

The second explosion on September 17 was the second time in less than a month that there has been a bombing outside of the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. No thoughts or clear motives for this choice of location have been released by either the Taliban or U.S. government officials. However, with the fact that President Trump scrapped a year’s worth of diplomatic efforts with the Taliban, there could be an assumption that this is their form of retaliation. A direct attack against the United States Embassy would warrant a proportional response such as bombings or increased military presence. The strategic placement of the bombings close to the Embassy sends a message to the United States, as well as may hope to instill fear into those at the Embassy, as well to American service members serving in Afghanistan. This may be an attempt to display to the United States that continued presence in the region will result in an increased loss of American service members’ lives.

On September 18, 2019, President Trump appointed Robert O’Brien as the new National Security Advisor. O’Brien comes into office during the Afghanistan as well as the Iran/Saudia Arabia crisis. O’Brien is known to be much more conservative and is considered hawkish. The recent openness by the Taliban to continue with the negotiations leaves the ultimate decision up to the United States. Although with the renewed attacks following this offer, it raises questions about the Taliban’s true commitment to the talks.

The recent statement from Stanikzai must be considered as to what the actual purpose of this offer is. Within a 24 hour period the Taliban was actively involved in two attacks - one aimed at the country’s leader and another within proximity to a U.S. Embassy. The latter could be interpreted as a form of intimidation or coercion. Coincidentally, within 24 hours of these attacks, Stanikzai makes it clear that the Taliban is willing to continue the peace talks with the United States. This could be seen as an attempt to de-escalate the potential interpretation of the situation as force against the U.S. or a ‘genuine’ interest to continue the negotiations which will assist them in pursuing their own political goals. However, the third set of bombings, although not targeted at Americans or American assets, raises questions about the group’s willingness to continue peace talks. This could be the Taliban telling the United States what policy makers and officials want to hear as well as placating some Taliban supporters well as Afghani citizens.

Afghanistan has been a region of instability for generations. The guise of stability in the region, as well as in relation to other nations, has been provided by diplomacy as well as foreign policy. Previous nations have attempted to stabilize the country, such as Russia in the late 20th century, and have failed. The region is known as the ‘graveyard of empires’ for this very reason.

Thus, The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) CENTCOM Team will continue to monitor the Taliban and the Afghanistan region as the situation develops. Analysis of future reports from the US government, as well as monitoring the Afghanistan government and Taliban report releases is necessary to assist in predicting possible outcomes to the situation as well as project the future of Afghanistan. A close watch on the Taliban and their movements, statements and Tweets should occur until the conclusion of the election with a secondary analysis occurring depending on the results. Coordination with the CTG Behavior & Leadership team following the election will help with future projections.

1. Taliban Make Good on Pledge to Strike Afghan Election Campaign, The New York Times, September 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/world/asia/afghanistan-bombing-ghani.html

2. Taliban attacks kill 48, Afghan leader unhurt as bomber targets rally, Reuters, September 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-election-blast/taliban-attacks-kill-30-afghan-leader-unhurt-as-bomb-hits-rally-idUSKBN1W20UA

3. Taliban ‘open’ to fresh talks with US after deadly Afghan bombings, American Military News, September 2019, https://americanmilitarynews.com/2019/09/taliban-open-to-fresh-talks-with-us-after-deadly-afghan-bombings/

4. Taliban car bomb hits hospital in Afghan province of Zabul, AlJazeera, September 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/killed-car-bomb-attack-afghan-province-zabul-190919042138106.html

5. Suicide Bomber and Gunmen Hit Eastern Afghanistan Gov't Office, The New York Times, September 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2019/09/18/us/18reuters-afghanistan-election-education.html

6. Ghani Seeks Re-Election to End War as Taliban Tightens Grip, Bloomberg, November 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-11-01/ghani-pushes-to-end-longest-u-s-war-as-taliban-tightens-grip

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