Afghan Conflict Update – June 2021

Afghanistan Retrograde

News, analysis, and commentary about the war in Afghanistan. Topics include security, ANDSF, Resolute Support, peace negotiations, US and international forces withdrawal, forming militias, Taliban offensive, governance, development, and more.

Afghan News Summary

During a recent press conference at Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul General Scott Miller warned that Afghanistan could slide into a civil war. Taliban forces have continued their advance across the northern provinces as well as in other areas of the country. At the same time an array of informal armed groups are forming up to oppose the Taliban. The US and international forces have all but completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. While the US Department of Defense says they have completed 50% of the draw down process that was started in May many observers believe that they are at 80 to 90% complete. President Biden met with Afghan leaders last week – making some promises for Afghanistan’s future.

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Security

This security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. The US State Department is once again warning Americans not to travel to Afghanistan due to COVID-19, crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict.

Spring Offensive. Over this past spring the Taliban (and other insurgent / terrorist groups) launched a series of attacks in urban areas against members of the ANDSF, civilian government employees, lawyers, media personalities, and others. Observers note that this is an attempt by the Taliban to put people on notice on what to expect with the reintroduction of the Emirate.

Districts are Falling. In the past few months the violence has increased in Afghanistan and the Taliban offensive has resulted in the fall of more of the country’s 407 districts to the enemy. Estimates are that in the past two months between 70 to 80 additional district centers have fallen; although some of these are quickly retaken by the Afghan commandos. The Taliban have doubled the number of districts that they control since May 1st. The provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Logar, Wardak, Baghlan, Faryab, Laghman, and others are experiencing increased attacks by the Taliban. As many as 100,000 people have been displaced in 2021 due to the fighting. Bill Roggio of the FDD’s Long War Journal provides a comprehensive look at the numbers of fallen districts.

Fight for the Provincial Capitals. The Taliban control two provincial capitals – Maimana and Faizabad. They are threatening Kunduz, Pul-i-Khumri, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Taloqan. There are fears that the Taliban will encircle the city of Kandahar – the one area of Kandahar province that is still under uncontested government control. As the Taliban take more district centers it is also severing transportation and communication links to provincial capitals.

“National Mobilization Day”. The Afghan government is taking steps to increase their capacity to fight the Taliban. Volunteers are being encouraged to join newly established local militias. There are reports that indicate thousands of personnel are being recruited for these ‘militia groups’. Read more in “Taliban gains drive Afghan government to recruit militias”, Associated Press, June 25, 2021. A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior stated that the armed groups are not militias, but instead are spontaneous local uprising forces. He said the groups would operate under the scrutiny of security officials. Some news reports say that many of these ‘volunteers’ are reported to be from the north – members of the ethnic Hazara and Uzbek population. The government has come under attack for arming citizen groups but it has stressed the need to arm people to defend against Taliban territorial gains.

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Taliban and Other Insurgents / Terrorists

Upcoming Taliban Summer Offensive. With the total withdrawal of U.S. and international forces to be completed by early July it is anticipated that the Taliban will further increase their offensive operations against Afghan government security forces. There has been a lot of analysis (speculation?) about how the Taliban could come to power. One recent article outlines four likely scenarios of how the Taliban will attempt to take control of the country. Read more in “Analysis: Predicting the coming Taliban offensive”, FDD’s Long War Journal, May 25, 2021.

Al Qaeda. For the first time in two decades the US will not have troops on the ground in Afghanistan (unless a ‘stay behind element’ sets up a base at Kabul international airport). Missing will also be the significant intelligence network and SOF organizations designed to ‘find, fix, and finish‘ insurgent leaders and terrorists. US officials say that they will still have the capability to interdict terrorist organizations in Afghanistan – likely through air strikes, drone strikes, or SOF raids mounted from outside of Afghanistan. Recent estimates indicate that al Qaeda has about several hundred members in the South Asia region. It has been somewhat inactive in recent years although many reports say it is fully integrated within the Taliban movement.

A new intelligence report published by the United Nations Security Council finds that the Taliban and al Qaeda remain closely aligned and are unlikely to break their relationship. Nabih Bulos, David Cloud, and Marcus Yam co-authored an article the explores this topic in detail in “U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan, but Al Qaeda remains”, Los Angeles Times, April 30, 2021.

In a recent speech (late May) President Biden said that the US doesn’t need to base US troops inside Afghanistan. He believes that “over-the-horizon” (OTH) operations can take care of any terrorist threats from Al Qaeda should they return to Afghanistan. Sounds good . . . except Al Qaeda is already there. Read more about Joe Biden’s problem with OTH operations and fighting terrorism in “Al-Qaeda is Still in Afghanistan, and It’s Fighting for Victory”, FDD’s The Dispatch, June 4, 2021.

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ANDSF

Over the fall and winter the Afghan security forces began targeting the Taliban more often and expanded their area of operations. This led to an intensification of the conflict over the winter and into the spring. However, it also had an effect on how well the ANDSF was able to rest, retrain, and refit – something usually done during the winter months. The fear now is that the ANDSF is suffering from fatigue and psychological defeatism.

There have been numerous reports of Afghan soldiers and units surrendering to the Taliban. Some Afghan security personnel have had to seek refuge in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan after their border posts were attacked. Afghanistan’s primary border with Tajikistan was taken over by the Taliban this past week. In some districts Afghan security forces have abandoned military camps and bases or surrendered to the Taliban. Many of these abandonments or surrenders were the result of negotiations with power brokers and tribal elders in the area.

ANDSF Strikes Against Al Qaeda. The Afghan military has been busy conducting attacks against Al Qaeda targets in Helmand province. The targets include training centers, safe houses, and Al Qaeda ‘foot soldiers’. “Afghan military targets Al Qaeda’s network in Helmand”, FDD’s Long War Journal, May 27, 2021.

Afghan Commandos. The majority of the offensive punch of the ANDSF comes from the Commandos. Read about a night raid conducted in May in Helmand province that took an IED cell off the battlefield. “On the Front Line: A Night With Afghan Commandos”, New York Times, June 25, 2021. The overused Afghan special operations forces do find themselves in desperate fights from time to time. Last week a group of 50 elite Afghan special operations forces recaptured Dawlat Abad, a district center in northern Afghanistan’s Faryab province. However, the expected reinforcements that were to arrive after the attack never showed up. A Taliban counterattack defeated the commando force killing at least 21 of the commandos.

ASSF Training. While the Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) are the heavy hitters for the ANDSF they will continue to need additional training. Camp Morehead, near Kabul, is the primary training site for the Afghan Commandos and Special Forces. However, the international instructors are no longer there. Probably the only good news to report is that NATO has asked Qatar to host training for Afghan commandos – most likely to occur at al-Udaid Air Base.

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Resolute Support

The withdrawal process is almost complete for the United States and the other international partners. A contingent of troops (initially US and perhaps Turkish at a later date) will secure the international airport in Kabul. There are news reports that say the U.S. is considering leaving a 650 man force to secure the international airport and the embassy. The US embassy is a 30 minute drive from the airport but most travel for US and other international personnel will likely be by helicopter. In fact, movement by helicopter has been the primary means for travel between Resolute Support HQs (including the embassy) to the airport for a number of years. Any US personnel left at Bagram Airfield will likely depart within the next week or so. Bagram was a massive military installation that was built by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. The CENTCOM chief said that the U.S. won’t use airstrikes to support Afghan forces after the withdrawal.

Withdrawal

The U.S. withdrawal officially began on May 1st; however, the reality is that the U.S. has been slowly pulling out over the past several years. As of May 1st there were only about 3,500 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan. Much of the U.S. contingent will have left by early July. The US moved an aircraft carrier from the Asia-Pacific to standby during the withdrawal process. Strike aircraft were moved to the region and a contingent of Rangers were dispatched Afghanistan to provide security during the withdrawal.

Airport Security. Turkey may provide some security at the Kabul airport after withdrawal. For the past several years Turkey has been the framework nation for the Train Advise and Assist Command – Capitol, so their presence in the Kabul area has been persistent for some time. The Turks are in talks with the US about their staying behind at Kabul International Airport (KIA). Currently there are about 500 Turkish military at the airport, Turkey says there are no plans to increase that number. There has been some extensive discussions on security guarantees and financial compensation. Read more in “Turkey and US nearing deal on Kabul airport mission”, Middle East Eye, June 29, 2021.

The Australians have announced plans to close their embassy in Kabul. British fighter jets may have been deployed to Afghanistan to protect withdrawing US and UK troops. As of Tuesday, June 29th, one of the biggest NATO contributors – Germany – had completed its withdrawal. As the Germans departed Camp Marmal in northern Afghanistan they had to contend with an abundance of beer and wine. That Afghans have told the Germans to take the beer home.

For years the Norwegian special forces have trained and worked with the Afghan Crisis Response Unit. NORSOF was one of the most important contributions to the ISAF / RSM effort over the past two decades. In addition, Norway also led the international effort in Faryab province from 2005 to 2012. “The last members of Norwegian special forces are leaving Afghanistan”, Norway Today, June 28, 2021.

Bases Being Turned Over to the Afghans. In rapid fashion the US has turned over bases to the Afghan military. The New Kabul Compound, known to many as NKC, was handed over to the Ministry of Defense on Friday, May 28, 2021. At one time, NKC was the home of Combined Forces Special Operations Component – Afghanistan (CFSOCC-A). This organization would later be part of the NSOCC-A / SOJTF-A when CFSOCC-A, NATO SOF, and ‘other’ SOF organizations were combined into a two-star organization.

Afghan Interpreters. One topic receiving a lot of media attention is the plight of Afghan interpreters that worked for the U.S. military who now are being targeted by the Taliban. Some former interpreters demonstrated in front of the U.S Embassy in Kabul on June 25, 2021 expressing concerns about their safety. The US Department of Defense says that the US has a moral obligation to help those in Afghanistan who helped the U.S. (DoD News, May 20, 2021).

There have been a lot of vague ‘promises’ by the DoD, State Department, and Biden administration but nothing concrete seems to have happened so far. Some news that came out in late June was that the US was ready to implement plans to evacuate thousands of former interpreters from Afghanistan. There could be plans to evacuate Afghan interpreters and other Afghans who worked for the U.S. to temporary host countries while they complete the Special Visa Application (SIV) process. Countries under consideration include the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, or Kuwait. While some interpreters have found their way to the US many have left their families behind in Afghanistan.

The shame is that this could have been done in an orderly fashion by the State Department over the past several years – but they utterly failed in their responsibility. The United Kingdom has promised to resettle Afghan interpreters that helped out their military over the last two decades. About 80 Afghan interpreters were flown to Australia after being granted safe haven in that country.

The Last American Hostage. U.S. Navy veteran Mark Frerichs, age 58, was abducted in Afghanistan in January 2020. His family worries that with the U.S. withdrawal almost complete that it will be too late to bring him home. (ABC News, Jun 29, 2021).

U.S. Financial Aid. The Biden administration has increased the amount of money for the Afghan forces for the next year. The 2022 defense budget has an increase of $300 million over last year. This brings the total to spend on the ANDSF up to $3.3 billion. “White House Proposed Slight Boost in Aid for Afghan Forces”, Voice of America, May 28, 2021. After the Biden – Ghani meeting on June 25th the White House released a Fact Sheet detailing the continued U.S. support for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

Withdrawal of General Miller? At some point in the next several weeks the general who has spent the most time as a Resolute Support Mission commander will depart Afghanistan. The remaining U.S. troops guarding the international airport and embassy area will be replaced with a lower ranking officer. General Scott Miller, a former JSOC commander, has spent the last two years in Afghanistan during a very difficult time.

Post Withdrawal

Intelligence Matters. The ability of the U.S. to maintain situational awareness in Afghanistan will degrade significantly. The lack of ‘eyes on the ground’ and the dis-continuation of personal relationships of Americans with their Afghan counterparts will reduce the quantity and quality of information about insurgents, terrorists, and other important topics. The rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces has the Central Intelligence Agency seeking ways to maintain its intelligence-gathering, warfighting, and counterterrorism operations in the country. “C.I.A. Scrambles for New Approach in Afghanistan”The New York Times, June 6, 2021. (subscription)

Maintaining ANDSF’s Equipment. Afghanistan’s security forces depend on foreign contractors and firms to maintain the aircraft, vehicles, and high-tech equipment that has been provided to them by the United States and other international donors. The vast majority of this equipment has maintenance and logistic requirements far beyond the technical ability of Afghans to service and maintain. They have depended on contractual support from the U.S., NATO, and other nations. However, with the withdrawal, most of the contracts are being canceled and the maintenance personnel sent home. The Afghan government is attempting to sign contracts with foreign firms to continue the maintenance and logistical work on its equipment. “Afghanistan Wants Foreign Firms to Continue Maintaining Its Military Hardware”, Voice of America, April 30, 2021.

Keeping the Planes Flying. The loss of U.S. contractors who support the Afghan Air Force could mean a game-changing shift in the military balance between the Afghan security forces and the insurgents. “Without U.S. contractors, the Afghan military will lose its main advantage over the Taliban – air power”NBC News, June 6, 2021. Probably the best case scenario is for the U.S. to continue financial support, over-the-horizon logistical support, and the Afghan ministries (MoD and MoI) contracted directly with international firms for maintenance and logistical support.

A Grounded Helicopter Fleet. In 2012, Congress paved the way to ensure that the self-sufficiency of the Afghan Air Force would be vastly diminished when it forced the Defense Department to provide UH-60 Blackhawks instead of Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters. Now that is causing a huge problem for the AAF. The UH-60s require contract maintenance workers (foreigners) to keep the complicated and complex helicopters flying. The Afghans are well-versed in keeping their Russian helicopters in the air – as they have been doing it for decades. Sean D. Carberry explains in “The Afghan Air Force: When ‘Buy American’ Goes Wrong”, The Hill, June 24, 2021.

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Peace Negotiations

Former President Trump’s decision to engage in direct talks with the Taliban put the Afghan government at a disadvantage. The terms of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement were certainly to the benefit of the Taliban. President Biden’s decision to make the US withdrawal ‘unconditional’ further reduced any leverage that the United States had on the Taliban’s stance in the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. At this point the Taliban really have no reason to continue the negotiations. With the complete withdrawal of the US and the international military forces the Taliban have only to pay attention to the country that provides them sanctuary – and most likely to a lesser degree than before.

The peace negotiations in Doha at this point in time have been stalled and not making any progress at all. The talks in Moscow have made no progress and there is little likelihood that the Istanbul Conference will fare any better. In fact, in search of excuses not to attend the Istanbul Conference the Taliban are citing Turkey’s willingness to leave a stay-behind security force at the international airport.

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Commentary

Over the past few months there has been an abundance of commentary about the pros and cons of leaving Afghanistan. A few articles of interest were selected and links to them are provided below.

The Best and Worst of COIN. Lt Col Mike Nelson, a Special Forces officer, provides a good summary of US counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. “It Was the Best of COIN, It Was the Worst of COIN: A Tale of Two Surges”, Modern War Institute, June 24, 2021.

Reorganizing Afghan Elite Forces. Eddie Banach, a USAF officer, argues that the elite units of the MoD and MoI need to be fused together to form a more effective fighting force. He cites the success of Iraq’s CTS. “Apex Predators: Why few security institutions are masters of their environments, and how to help the Afghan security forces become masters of theirs”, Small Wars Journal, May 4, 2021.

Amb. Crocker on Afghanistan. A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan provides his perspective on the U.S. departure from Afghanistan. He reminds us of why we invaded Afghanistan, He believes that a stable Afghanistan built on a “. . . foundation of development and democracy is the best possible bulwark . . .” against terrorist attacks on the United States. “The Once and Future Afghanistan”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2021.

Lessons Unlearned. “To the students of history, the West’s withdrawal from a 20-year conflict is a sadly familiar tale.” Max Hastings, a journalist and author of 28 books, provides his thoughts on how the United States ignored lessons learned from the Vietnam War. “The Vietnam War’s Lessons Went Unlearned in Afghanistan”, Bloomberg Opinion, May 2, 2021.

Human Rights in the Future Afghanistan. Patricia Gossman argues that the United States will be in a position, by virtue of the foreign aid to Afghanistan, to insist on accountability within the Afghan government about human rights and corruption. “Doing Human Rights in Afghanistan Right this Time”, Human Rights Watch, May 27, 2021.

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Governance and Politics

President Ghani has a tough road ahead. He has to keep the Afghan security forces focused and at the same time continue to build political partnerships with the many different political factions in Afghanistan. His political struggle with Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah has certainly not helped with the political and security situation in Afghanistan. Subnational governance is taking some hits with the many districts that are falling to the Taliban or that are slowly coming under their ‘influence’. Ghani replaced his security chiefs at the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior in late June.

President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah met with President Biden, Secretary of Defense Austin, and others last week in Washington, D.C. Promises were made committing the United States to humanitarian and security assistance to Afghanistan after the withdrawal is complete.

Former President Hamid Karzai said that the international community failed in their 20-year attempt to end extremism and bring stability to Afghanistan. He failed to mention his role in the Afghan disaster while serving as the Afghan president for 13 years.

The Taliban are not wasting any time in setting up authority and administration in areas of Afghanistan they now control. The Taliban’s deputy emir has issued guidance for governance in newly seized territory. (The Long War Journal, Jun 25, 2021).

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Economy and Development

Economic Fallout of Withdrawal. In 2011 there were 130,000 international troops in Afghanistan and an equal number of contractors dispersed on roughly 800 large and small bases. This huge presence brought many millions of dollars into the country and employed thousands of Afghans. But as the number of troops and contractors decreased so has the number of Afghans who work directly or indirectly for the US and other international military forces. The reduction of foreign forces in Afghanistan has had a shocking effect on the economy. For many years Afghans were employed as cleaners, manual laborers, cooks, mechanics, security guards, and interpreters. Businesses were contracted to provide transportation, food, bottled water, and construction. With the withdrawal of troops most economic observers believe the Afghan economy will contract further. “Afghanistan Reels From Economic Fallout of International Troop Withdrawal”, Gandhara Blog, May 1, 2021.

Central Asia and the Withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Central Asian states are concerned that once the U.S. completes its pullout from Afghanistan that it will have little concern for the countries to the north of Afghanistan. The departure of the US will have some unfavorable economic impact on the Central Asian states. “What Does the US Withdrawal from Afghanistan Mean for Central Asia?”, The Diplomat, May 25, 2021. Some national security observers have remarked that the US should re-establish some military bases in one or more of the Central Asia states – providing a platform from which to launch aircraft, drones, and SOF reaction forces.

The fighting in northern Afghanistan has some important implications for Central Asia. Eight Afghan provinces border the former Soviet republics in Central Asia – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Many of the highway and railway connections may soon belong to the Taliban – complicating the economic cross-border trade. “Taliban Fighters Return to Central Asia’s Borders”, Radio Free Europe, June 25, 2021.

High Road to China? A road is currently being constructed at the end of the Afghan Wakhan Corridor and is set to run right up to the remote Afghan-Chinese border. This is a historic feat, however, it is unlikely to provide much economic relief due to an array of reasons. One primary reason is that the Afghans want an open border crossing but at least so far – may not have talked to the Chinese about it. “High Road to China? A road to the Afghan-Chinese border is not what it might seem”, 9DASHLINE, June 29, 2021.

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Books, Reports, and Publications

CRS Report. The Congressional Research Service has updated its Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy In Brief. Dated June 11, 2021, this 16-page PDF contains information on the U.S.-Taliban agreement, the U.S. withdrawal, and financial support to the Afghan security forces post-withdrawal.
https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R45122

SIGAR Report. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has released its Quarterly Report to the United States Congress. The 224-page PDF covers topics such as SIGAR oversight, reconstruction update, funding for Afghanistan, security situation, governance, and economic and social development. (31 April 2021)
https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2021-04-30qr.pdf

Conclusion

The situation in Afghanistan is troublesome. At a press conference on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby stated that the end of the retrograde will signify the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan. The U.S. mission will transition to protecting U.S. diplomatic efforts in the nation and to establishing a bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Afghanistan. The only U.S. forces that will be left in the country will be there to protect the U.S. diplomatic presence. Without international military assistance the Afghan government will be hard pressed to push the Taliban out of the areas that they control. It is very likely the Taliban will continue to take control of more and more rural areas as well as threaten some provincial capitals. Warlords and powerbrokers will increase their influence while the Afghan government will lose control at the subnational level. If the power elites in the Afghan government and society at large don’t come together and develop a cohesive plan to oppose the Taliban then the regional and ethnic diversity of Afghanistan could lead to a civil war.

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Photo / Image: Aircrews prepare cargo for transit back to the United States in support of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. (DVIDS, May 2021).

Editorial Note: I spent parts or most of nine different years in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2017 as either a soldier or DOD / NATO contractor. There was hope that what I did, and the contributions that many, many others made, would make a difference. What I am left with is concern for Afghanistan and its people, a deep sense of disappointment, and the faces of the brothers who were killed or wounded.


About John Friberg 178 Articles
John Friberg is the Editor and Publisher of SOF News. He is a retired Command Chief Warrant Officer (CW5 180A) with 40 years service in the U.S. Army Special Forces with active duty and reserve components.