Afghan Conflict Update – February 2021

Afghan security force members walk past a bombed truck in Kabul (AFP photo by Zakeria Hashimi)

News, analysis, and commentary about the war in Afghanistan. Topics include security, ANDSF, Resolute Support, peace negotiations, governance, development, podcasts, videos, and more.

Afghan News Summary

It is becoming increasingly likely that the United States will not have all of its troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 according to the terms agreed upon with the Taliban in early 2020. The Biden administration is reviewing the Afghan situation and will likely attempt to modify the agreement with the Taliban. NATO is indicating that it wishes to continue the Resolute Support mission. The Afghan government remains an ineffective institution that fails to deliver government services to its rural population and struggles to defeat to the Taliban.

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The security situation is still troubled – the Taliban continue to rule much of the countryside and threaten the district centers and – to a lesser extent – provincial capitals. The Afghan government is still corrupt and ineffective at the sub-national level. The narcotics trade permeates all levels of Afghans society. High profile attacks occur in the capital city of Kabul.

Afghan Warlords and Militias. Afghan security forces are strained to the limit and unable to stop rampant violence fracturing the country. Fighting has intensified between the government security forces and the Taliban. Militias and strongmen are filling in the vacuum. (Public Broadcasting System, Feb 10, 2021).

Shadowy Militias. Afghanistan’s poor are being deceived into defending outposts from the Taliban. Read “Inside the Shadowy Militias Luring Unsuspecting Afghans to Fight, or Die”, The New York Times, February 4, 2021 (subscription).

China and Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s large eastern neighbor (China and Afghanistan share a small border area) has a multi-faceted approach to Afghanistan. Read about it in “China’s Evolving Security Presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia“, China Brief, The Jamestown Foundation, February 4, 2021.

Civilian Casualties – UN Report. The United Nations released its annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan for 2020. Over 3,000 civilians were reported killed and over 5,000 injured. This was a 15% drop in casualties from 2019. However, there was a rise in civilians killed or injured after the start of intra-Afghan peace negotiations in September 2020. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), February 23, 2021.

ISIS-K. The Islamic State of Khorasan Province has condemned the peace talks. It has continued attacks against the government. ISIS-K suffered a big loss of territory and personnel in 2019. It has reconsolidated into a clandestine network rather than seeking to claim and hold territory as it had in the past. It is most active in Nangarhar, Kunar, and Kabul provinces.

Al-Qaeda. This terrorist group is assessed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to continue to have ties with the Taliban with many of its members integrated into the Taliban forces and command structure. Estimates place its membership at 200 in Afghanistan.

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The Taliban have adopted a ‘fight and talk’ strategy. It is calibrating its violence to increase political leverage on the Afghan government without jeopardizing the agreement with the United States.

Targeted Killings. Kabul continues to experience targeted killings of its media workers, civil society activists, security personnel, and government officials. Civilian bystanders are victims of the attacks as well. The Taliban, Daesh, al-Qaeda, and Haqqani network are all to blame for the attacks. (MENAFN, Feb 22, 2021).

Drugs and the Taliban. A recent paper seeks to illuminate the relationship between the drug trade and the insurgency to provide a better understanding of the interaction between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency campaigns. Gareth Rice, an Australian Cavalry Officer, explains in “Drugs and Power: Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”, Small Wars Journal, February 3, 2021.

US Captive Still Held. The family of a man held by insurgents fear that as the U.S. military departs Afghanistan that Mark Frerich will be left behind. The Navy veteran was abducted over a year ago while working in the country on engineering projects. He is believed to be in the custody of the Haqqani Network. Read more in “Biden faces calls to secure release of US man in Afghanistan”, Associated Press, January 30, 2021.

Watches and Time. Jeff Schogol provides his viewpoint of the 20-year long U.S. involvement in the Afghan conflict. Read his perspective in “The Taliban says they won the War in Afghanistan. they are not wrong”, Task & Purpose, January 30, 2021.

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The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces have made little progress in the reduction of checkpoints. This has been an ongoing struggle between the Resolute Support headquarters and the MoD and MoI. The assessment by RS is that troops in small defensive checkpoints diminish the offensive power of the ANDSF and are easy targets for the insurgents to attack. The Afghan Local Police (ALP) has been officially dissolved – its members integrated into other MoI or Mod units – or retired. The Afghan Special Security Forces (ASSF) are the premier fighting units in the ANDSF and conduct most of the offensive operations. (One of the very few bright spots in the security situation.)

Afghan SOF to Increase. The Afghans are reconfiguring how the countries intelligence and special operations units will be organized. Some sources indicate that one ‘central command’ will be established. NFI.

Vehicles Transferred to ANDSF. In mid-February 2021 the US handed over almost 640 vehicles to the Afghan National Army (ANA). These included 403 HUMVEES, 43 Ranger pickup trucks, 23 ambulances, and 170 motorbikes. (, Feb 24, 2020).

Withdrawal and COVID-19 Reducing Trainer Presence. The drop from 4,000 to 2,500 US military personnel and the reduction of contractors who provide oversight and training to the ANDSF has reduced the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces – especially the Afghan Air Force (AAF). In addition, the money flow into Afghanistan to support the government and its military will have decreased oversight as well. This provides more room for corruption, waste, and inefficiency in the application of funds from international donors to support Afghanistan. See “Afghanistan’s Great Gap”, by Walter Pincus, The Cipher Brief, February 23, 2021.

AAF – Combat Effectiveness Will Decline. With the departure of US advisors, trainers, and contract maintenance personnel the Afghan Air Force will soon be combat ineffective – within months. (Stars and Stripes, Feb 19, 2021).

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Resolute Support

Even though the US is down to 2,500 personnel the DoD maintains that it is still continuing to execute the dual missions of counterterrorism and training, advising, and assisting the Afghan security forces. The US has taken several measures to continue the two mission sets with a smaller footprint, such as relocating some support staff outside the country, closing several bases, and focusing advisory efforts at the national level rather than the regional level. The US is at its lowest troop level in Afghanistan since 2001.

NATO Reaffirms Commitment. NATO defense ministers concluded a conference in Europe where the mission in Afghanistan was a central topic. The organization reiterated their commitment to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission – with training and funding for the Afghan security forces. (NATO, Feb 18, 2021).

Germany to Extend? Germany’s federal cabinet approved a law extending the deployment of German forces to Afghanistan through January 31, 2022. The German parliament must still approve the decision. Germany, with 1,100 troops, is the second largest troop contributing nation after the United States (2,500).

New Zealand Ends Afghan Deployment. At one time New Zealand had a significant long-running role in the Afghan conflict. However, the last few years have seen a vastly reduced presence. In May, the country will withdraw the remaining few personnel (6). The NZ government has stated that after 20 years of a NZDF presence in Afghanistan the time has come to end the commitment. NZ provided special forces, training specialists, and reconstruction teams over two decades of service. (, Feb 17, 2021).

Denmark, Afghanistan, and Film. Most Americans are not aware of the contribution of its European allies to the conflict in Afghanistan. Todd Johnson helps to illuminate the NATO and partner nation efforts in that long conflict by showcasing the films produced depicting the role of Denmark in Afghanistan. Read “An Ounce of Blood”, War Room, United States Army War College, February 4, 2021.

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Peace Negotiations

The US has reduced its troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 (as of mid-January) and is on its way towards a total withdrawal by May. This is in line with the agreement between the Taliban and the US which states that all nondiplomatic US personnel – military, civilian, and contractors – will leave by May 1, 2021. That is the plan – as long as the Taliban meets its obligations under the agreement.

Peace Talks Stalled. The discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been non-productive over the past few months. The Taliban has demanded that the government side accept a new “inclusive Islamic system” that would guarantee Islamic rule in a post-war Afghanistan. The Afghan government insists that the Taliban declare a cease fire and join the current political system. So the talks are at a stalemate. In the mean time the Taliban have launched a diplomatic international effort to garner support. See “Taliban on diplomatic blitz after Afghan peace talks stall”, Military Times, February 4, 2021.

Implementation of the Doha Agreement. Thomas Ruttig examines the ‘vagueness’ of the Taliban – US agreement for the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. He believes that this vagueness has strengthened the hand of the Taliban over the Afghan government. An examination of the text of the agreement will reveal that it is “difficult to nail down what has really been agreed, what was achieved and what has been breached.” Read his thoughts in “A Deal in the Mist: How much of the US-Taleban Doha agreement has been implemented?”, Afghanistan Analysts Network, February 25, 2021.

Preventing Hostilities as APN Progress. “To ensure a lasting peace, the United States and its partners should strive to minimize the possibility that, once international forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban remobilize and seek a battlefield victory.” A recent USIP article identifies five key steps that one would want the Taliban to take in the Afghan peace negotiations (APN). It then describes the ideal scenario, provides a reality check, and finally lists five factors that affect the Taliban likelihood of reconstituting and resuming hostilities. Read “How to Prevent Fresh Hostilities as Afghan Peace Talks Progress”, United States Institute of Peace, February 9, 2021.

Afghan Farmers and Peace. R.K. Lembke argues that what the farmer in the rural countryside wants should be considered by those at the negotiation table. He provides seven important points for consideration. Read more in “Afghanistan and Peace: It’ About the Farmer Stupid”, Small Wars Journal, February 14, 2021.

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Governance and Politics

SIGAR Report on Afghan Elections. A Lessons Learned report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction examines the challenges the United States and international community face in supporting Afghan elections. The report identifies lessons to inform U.S. policies and actions regarding electoral support. It also provides recommendations for improving electoral efforts. Elections: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan, SIGAR, February 2021, PDF, 255 pages.

Tribal Rule Supreme in Pashtun Heartland. Widespread corruption and ineptness plague Afghanistan’s judicial system. So citizens resort to other means to attain justice. “In Afghanistan’s Pashtun Heartland, Tribal Rule Supersedes State Law”, Gandhara Blog, February 15, 2021.

Judicial Independence. The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) has published a report by Shoaib Timory entitled Judicial Independence in Afghanistan: Legal Framework and Practical Challenges. The report finds that the judiciary remains a weak pillar of the current constitutional order. Dated February 2021, the report is online and in PDF format (76 pages).

EU-Afghanistan Meeting. The third meeting of the EU-Afghanistan Special Working Group on Human Rights, Good Governance and Migration took place on 24 February 2021 – in a virtual format. All the usual proclamations were issued and they group will convene once again in 2022. Read a joint press release on the meeting by the European Union published on 24 Feb 2021.

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Economy and Development

The End of CERP. The Commander’s Emergency Response Program was a multibillion-dollar effort to give commanders in the field a way to disperse small grants for cash and work projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee are making the recommendation to end CERP and will put language into the annual defense funding bill that will force the Pentagon to comply. CERP has been a key part of the military’s counterinsurgency strategy focused on winning the support of local populations away from insurgents. (Stars and Stripes, Feb 5, 2021).

Report – Gender Equality. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has issued a report on gender equality in Afghanistan. The 242-page PDF was published by SIGAR in February 2021.

Railroads. Three countries are planning on building a new railway. Hugh Ollard looks at the prospects of, and problems along the route. There are immense infrastructural, logistical, and security difficulties ahead. “What’s Behind the Planned Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan Railway?”, The Diplomat, February 25, 2021.

Airport for Logar Province. The Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority is planning for an international airport in Logar province. (MENAFN, Feb 15, 2021).

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Books, Reports, and Publications

Country Brief – US Withdrawal. The “Third Way” has published a primer on Afghanistan. It provides some recommendations for the US to follow as it withdraws from Afghanistan. This includes 1) giving support to the Afghan government to reach a successful peace agreement with the Taliban, 2) sunset the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, 3) reduce military spending to reflect the end of mission, and 4) hold the Russian government accountable for attacks on US soldiers. 2020 Country Brief: Afghanistan, September 17, 2020.

SIGAR Quarterly Report. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued its Quarterly Report to the United States Congress for the period October 1 to December 31, 2020. The report was published on January 30, 2021. PDF, 223 pages.

DoD Quarterly Report. The Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress covering the period October 1 to December 31, 2020 has been published. Released on February 17, 2021, the 90-page document provides information on major developments, measures of security diplomacy, and more.

Human Rights – UN Report. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have issued a report on Afghanistan. Preventing Torture and Upholding the Rights of Detainees in Afghanistan: A Factor for Peace, UNAMA, February 2021, PDF, 61 pages.

USIP Report. The United States Institute for Peace (USIP) published its Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan. The 88-page document was mandated by Congress in December 2019 and tasked with identifying policy recommendations. Afghanistan Study Group Final Report, SOF News, February 4, 2021.

Book Review – 88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary. Robert L. Grenier’s book is reviewed – and six intelligence lessons are found. (Clearance Jobs, Feb 3, 2021).

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Podcasts, Webcasts, and Videos

Podcast – Groundhog Day. The new administration has indicated that it needs to assess the U.S.-Taliban deal. However, according to the participants in this podcast – there isn’t much for the Biden administration to assess. “The Taliban was never interested in peace and hasn’t taken any steps to break with al Qaeda”, Long War Journal, February 3, 2021, 53 mins.


Top Photo: An Afghan security force member walks past a bombed truck in Kabul. Photo from top cover of SIGAR Feb 2021 quarterly report to Congress. AFP photo by Zakeria Hashim.

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