Afghan Conflict – A Look Back at 2020

Afghan Commandos

News, analysis, and commentary about the war in Afghanistan from the past few months of 2020. Topics include security, ANDSF, Resolute Support, peace negotiations, governance, development, podcasts, videos, and more.

Afghan News Summary

The Taliban hold more territory than ever before – not since before September 2001 have they held this much of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) still have a presence in Afghanistan. Peace talks are continuing with no real progress and with the Taliban apparently driving the train. The U.S. troop complement is significantly down-sized and will be at 2,500 at some point in January 2020. It remains to be seen what President-elect Biden’s Afghanistan policy will be. He may opt for the situation that President Trump has left him – leaving 2,500 troops in country. He may decide to keep a counterterrorism capability within Afghanistan. Or he could withdraw completely in May 2021 in accordance with the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement.

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The Afghan government’s ability to establish security within the much of the rural area of the country is limited. It’s ability to provide services at the sub-governance level is affected by the lack of security as well as corruption and inefficiency. Insurgent and terrorist attacks continue at a high level despite the peace talks. The implementation of an ANDSF checkpoint reduction plan has faltered.

Targeted Killings. Attacks against government officials, journalists, military personnel, civil society activists, and other high-profile figures has increased over the past several month. On the first day of 2021 an Afghan journalist was shot dead in an attack by gunmen in Ghor province. Insider attacks have been happening regularly. The latest took place on Monday, January 4, 2021 in the Arghandab district in Kandahar province where nine policemen were killed at a check point.

Afghan Pilot Assassinated. An Afghan air force pilot was killed by gunman in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar on December 30, 2020. The helicopter pilot had been trained in the Czech Republic and the United Arab Emirates. Afghan police say that the assassin and two other insurgents were killed by the ANP. “Afghan Pilot Gunned Down in Kandahar”, Voice of America, December 30, 2020.

“Sticky Bombs”. A troublesome tactic used by insurgents in the past has gained popularity among those targeting Afghan government and military officials. The use of magnetic bombs placed on vehicles that are in motion has taking place almost daily. Usually insurgents will use a two-man motorcycle team to emplace the magnetic car bomb. The use of these sticky bombs have become an important tool in a widespread assassination campaign. (Task & Purpose, Dec 17, 2020).

Chinese Spy Ring Busted. The Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) detained 10 Chinese citizens over espionage charges. (Khaama Press, Dec 26, 2020). They were allegedly operating a terror cell in Kabul city. Two of the members are said to have been in direct contact with the Haqqani network. See also a news article by Pajhwok Afghan News (Dec 28, 2020). An Indian Army officer provides his perspective of China’s interference in Afghan affairs in the South Asian Monitor. Some news reports indicate that the ten Chinese citizens have now departed Afghanistan on a chartered aircraft – thus quietly removing from the glare of the press a potentially embarrassing situation.

Chinese (and Russian) Bounties. The Democrats had a field day this past year criticizing the Trump administration for ignoring intelligence indictors (many say uncorroborated) that the Russians paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. military personnel. Now the Trump administration has declassified unconfirmed intelligence on China bounties on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (The Hill, Dec 30, 2020).

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Move of Taliban Leadership. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) has info that the Taliban group is attempting to move its leadership from its safe refuge in Pakistan to bases in southern and southwestern Afghanistan. (Reportedly, Jan 4, 2021).

The Taliban’s Drones. In the past year the insurgents have stepped up surveillance operations and attacks using modified commercial drones. “Taliban adopting drone warfare to bolster attacks”, The National News, January 4, 2021.

The Taliban’s Air Force. Apparently the U.S. has launched air strikes against ISIK fighters that were engaged in operations against the Taliban. While not coordinated with the Taliban the air strikes certainly helped the Taliban. “General confirms the US has helped the Taliban by launching drone strikes against ISIS“, Task & Purpose, December 10, 2020.

“But it was a common enemy. It was an opportunity to strike someone who is an implacable foe of the united States. We did it. It probably helped the Taliban, and that would be the way I would describe it.”

General McKenzie, Commander of Central Command (CENTCOM)

The Taliban’s Judiciary. The Taliban’s alternative justice system is gaining traction in may regions that the militants control. A lack of government courts, judges, and prosecutors have forced residents to go to the Taliban or local mosques to seek legal recourse. This is compounded by a corrupt Afghan government judicial system where bribes often determine the outcome of legal proceedings. “Taliban Courts Seek to Undermine Afghan Judiciary”, Gandhara Blog, December 14, 2020.

Gen Milley Meets With Taliban. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff met secretly with the Taliban in December. He also spent some time with President Ghani as well. No real news came out of this event.

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A-29 Training Program in U.S. Ends. After nearly five years the USAF is now putting the brakes on the training program that teaches Afghan pilots how to fly the A-29 Super Tucano. The final class graduated in November 2020 at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia. The 81st Fighter Squadron has been training Afghan pilots and maintenance technicians. Training will now be done in Afghanistan with Afghan instructor pilots running the training program. There are currently 28 A-29s available in Afghanistan for close air support, air interdiction, escort, and armed reconnaissance missions. Read more in “Air Force Ends Program That Trained Afghan Pilots to Fly the A-29 Super Tucano”,, November 19, 2020.

Afghanistan’s Policing Failure? Karl Nicolas Lindenlaub is an independent researcher with a focus on asymmetric warfare, security force assistance, and sub-state militant groups. In a recent article he outlines some of the reasons that the Ministry of Interior (MoI) and Afghan National Police (ANP) have not been a reliable security organization. Read “Afghanistan’s Policing Failure and the Uncertain Way Forward”, The Strategy Bridge, October 20, 2020.

ALP Loses US Funding. The United States has ended its funding for the Afghan Local Police as of 30 Sep 2020. The ALP was set up by U.S. Army Special Forces to provide security at the local level in Afghanistan – working in conjunction with the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program. Much of the mission of the ALP as well as about 1/3 of its personnel has been transferred to the Afghan National Army Territorial Force. Another 1/3 of ALP members will go to the Afghan National Police and the remainder will ‘retire’ (or join a local militia . . . or join the Taliban). Local security is also provided in part by Afghan militias referred to as local uprising forces. (SOFREP, Dec 31, 2020). The Afghanistan Analysts Network provides more information on the final chapter of the ALP. (AAN, Oct 6, 2020) as well as a special report on the ANA-TF (AAN, Aug 20, 2020).

Afghan Government Death Squads. Andrew Quilty provides an interesting article about a U.S.-backed militia that has acquired a dubious reputation for unwarranted violence. Read “The CIA’s Afghan Death Squads”, The Intercept, December 18, 2020. (Editorial note: The Intercept has a history of publishing stories with a bit of an anti-U.S. slant so there’s that . . .)

New ‘Security Force Unit’? A new unit has been established comprised of police, army, and NDS personnel. It will expand in size and activity during the coming summer months and operate principally in Farah province. (Khaama Press, Jan 4, 2021).

Missing Equipment. The Defense Department failed to keep track of surveillance systems, controls for laser-guided bombs, night vision devices, and other equipment provided to the Afghan government. “Sensitive US military equipment given to local forces goes unaccounted for in Afghanistan, watchdog says”, Stars and Stripes, December 17, 2020.

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Resolute Support

The RS mission is steadily being ‘down-sized’. Some NATO countries have pulled back its forces and the U.S. has significantly reduced its footprint – down from 13,000 in early 2020 to about 2,500 by mid-January 2021. COVID-19 has significantly affected the advisory effort as well as the ability to conduct oversight on the ANDSF institutions and forces.

U.S. Force Reduction. By December 2020 the U.S. troop level was down to 4,500 in Afghanistan. President Trump announced a further reduction of U.S. troops – the target number being 2,500 by early January. General Scott Miller, the Resolute Support commander, confirmed that the U.S. reduction will take place by January 15th. The reduction is facing opposition in the US House of Representatives and Senate. See “Miller Says He Has Orders to Reduce US Troop Levels”, Tolo News, December 14, 2020. At this point in time there are more NATO troops than US troops in Afghanistan. Many of the U.S. bases that held thousands of troops have been vacated. One of these is FOB Shank (also named “Rocket City”) that recently saw the last 300 U.S. troops depart. (Tolo News, Jan 4, 2020).

U.S. Air Strikes Continue. The United States is still using air strikes to hit ISIS and support the ANDSF that are attacked by the Taliban. Reports of civilian casualties frequently make the press.

Advising Effort. General Scott Miller recently explained how Resolute Support is continuing the advising effort. He said that the U.S. bases have closed or shrunk – and now the U.S. presence in parts of the country are ‘enclaves’ within an ANDSF base. RS is still able to advise at the ministerial level and down to the corps level in the northern parts of the country. Miller said that RS will be able to project advisors to ‘points of need’ by moving an advisor package by air. This is an expeditionary advisory effort with a lighter footprint.

Billions Wasted. By the end of January there will likely be about 2,500 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan. Very few of these troops will be involved in monitoring how the Afghans spend the money we provide them. Over the past 19 years the U.S. taxpayers have footed roughly $138 billion for Afghan relief, reconstruction, and security. Is it time to stop the money flow? “How US wasted billions on absurd errors in Afghanistan War”, by Hollie McKay, Fox News, December 9, 2020.

Turkey Extending Its Stay. Turkey has about 1,200 soldiers in Afghanistan supporting the RS mission. It is currently in the process of extending the mission for another 18 months. “Turkey Bids to Extend Military Presence in Afghanistan”, Khaama Press, December 17, 2020.

New RS Dep Cdr. Lieutenant General Nicola Zanelli of the Italian Army assumed the position of Deputy Commander of the NATO-led mission Resolute Support. He took over from Lieutenant General Giles Hill of the British Army. (NATO, Dec 16, 2020).

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Peace Negotiations

U.S. – Taliban Withdrawal Agreement. The U.S. government and the Taliban insurgents signed a agreement in February 2020. The U.S. pledged to withdraw troops from Afghanistan if the Taliban would prevent terrorists from operating in Afghanistan and enter into talks with the Afghan government.

There were a lot of other components to the U.S.-Taliban agreement – some of them referred to as ‘secret annexes’. It was assumed by the U.S. that the Taliban would reduce the level of violence – hasn’t happened. Prisoners would be exchanged – this got drawn out over time. Eventually the Taliban released 1,000 prisoners while the Afghan government released 5,000 prisoners. The Taliban-Afghan government talks have finally started but thus far only ‘procedural rules’ have been hashed out.

Intra-Afghan Peace Talks. The Afghan government and the Taliban began their face-to-face peace discussions in September 2020 in Doha, Qatar. Representatives for the Taliban and Afghan government have finally agreed to the ‘rules of procedure‘ (AAN, Jan 3, 2021) for the talks – that only took about three months to iron out. The negotiating teams paused talks in mid-December. They plan to renew talks on January 5, 2021 in Doha, Qatar. The next major subject to be discussed will be the agenda for future talks.

On December 30, 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that Afghanistan’s “fragile peace process” has no “guarantee of success”. The U.S. continues to emphasize that the Taliban needs to reduce the level of violence . . . but to no avail. President Ghani named members of the High Council for National Reconciliation but his decree was met with resistance by many elements of the Afghan political elite.

Completion of U.S. Withdrawal and Victory for the Taliban? The U.S.-Taliban agreement calls for the complete U.S. and NATO military withdrawal by May 2021. The Taliban likely will view this as a ‘victory’ and will grow even more confident in their ability to topple the Afghan government.

Biden’s Decision Point. President-elect Biden’s administration will face a decision point in the next few months. The U.S. can opt to abide with the withdrawal agreement which may very likely see the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan (with no guarantee that al-Qaeda or ISKP will be diminished) or the U.S. can keep a small counterterrorism force backed by SOF advisors and air power (which Biden probably prefers) and face the prospect of the Taliban abandoning the peace process.

Lots of Commentary on the Peace Process. A host of writers and observers have contributed their ‘two cents’ on the prospect of success for the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. Some say it is the only way to resolve the long conflict while others maintain that it is a recipe for Taliban success. Rory Andrews argues that the current process is not inclusive of the various elements of Afghan society. (Small Wars Journal, Dec 3, 2020).

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Why the U.S. Lost in Afghanistan. MG (Ret) Don Bolduc explains what the United States did wrong in Afghanistan. He lists nine missteps by the U.S. Bolduc is a retired Special Forces officer with several tours of duty in Afghanistan. Read his perspective in “Short-Sighted Political Strategy and Other Reasons the War in Afghanistan Failed”, SOFREP, December 9, 2020.

Ending the War in Afghanistan. Admiral (Ret) James Stavridis was the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013. Here are his thoughts on how to end the Afghan War. “I Commanded NATO Forces in Afghanistan: Here’s How We Could End This ‘Forever War'”, Time, December 9, 2020.

Suggestions for President Biden. Jonathan Schroden, of the CNA, assesses the situation in Afghanistan and offers suggestions for the new administration to secure a better peace and a more stable country. “Afghanistan Will Be the Biden Administration’s First Foreign Policy Crisis”, Lawfare Blog, December 20, 2020.

How US Leaves Matters. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon believes that America can’t stay in Afghanistan forever, but it matters how we leave. She believes it it in America’s interest to stand on the side of those who fight against extremism and for stability. (CNN, Dec 16, 2020).

CT or COIN in Afghanistan? Carlo J.V. Caro provides his perspective on the choices the Biden administration will have in Afghanistan. Read “Counterterrorism or Counterinsurgency? Biden’s Coming Afghanistan Dilemma”, The Diplomat, December 16, 2020.

Repeating History. Jose Miguel Alonso-Trabanco reviews the troubled past of Afghanistan – beginning with the Soviet invasion and continuing until the present day. Read “History on Repeat: War and Peace in Afghanistan”, Eurasia Review, December 16, 2020.

New Afghan Strategy Needed. CAPT Anthony Cowden, a US Naval officer, says it is time to think out of the box and turn to old solutions for a new strategy. He believes the current U.S. strategy is a path to precipitously leave Afghanistan and watch the Afghan government crumble to the Taliban. Read “A(other) New Afghanistan Strategy, Based on an Old Approach”, Real Clear Defense, December 21, 2020.

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Governance, Economy and Development

The Afghanistan economy continues to falter due to the insecurity in the country, diminished foreign aid, decrease in foreign military presence, and the coronavirus pandemic. Afghanistan continues to dominate global opium cultivation and production. Cultivation remains nearly three times the pre-2002 average. Currently donor grants from the international community finance more than half the Afghan government budget and 3/4’s of total public expenditures. The country is suffering from the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. there have been a total of 53,000 plus cases and the total number of reported deaths is 2,237.

Afghan Govt Anti-Corruption Efforts. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) provided a 13-page letter to leading U.S. government officials about the current state of Afghan government anti-corruption efforts. Not exactly good news but there has been some cases of limited progress. (SIGAR, Nov 6, 2020).

Human Development. Lutfi Rahimi, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, provides his perspective on four human development factors. A recent (2019) human development index (HDI) ranked Afghanistan 169th out of 187 counters and in the lowest group in the gender inequality index (GII). “Thinking More Deeply About Human Development in Afghanistan”, The Diplomat, December 29, 2020.

Rail Links With Iran Improve. A rail line was recently opened between the Iranian city of Haf to Herat in western Afghanistan. This will increase the economic and transportation ties between Iran and Afghanistan – improving the economic prospects for Afghanistan. See “Iran Rapidly Expanding Rail Links with Central Asia and Caucasus”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 15, 2020.

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Books, Reports, and Publications

SIGAR Report. The Quarterly Report to Congress (Nov 2020) by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction is available on line. Pages 83-95 cover Afghanistan’s SOF units (ANASOC, GCPSU, and SMW). (PDF, 255 pages).

Lead IG Report on OFS. The 22nd quarterly report submitted to Congress by the Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS) summarizes the quarter’s (Jul – Aug – Sep 2020) key events and oversight of the CT and advising mission in Afghanistan. The 84-page PDF is available online. Bryce Klehm provides a condensed version of the report in his essay on the Lawfare Blog (Nov 30, 2020).

Report – History of U.S. Army in Afghanistan. The U.S. Army Center of Military History has published a report that shows how the United States Army balanced its ongoing commitment to combating terrorist and insurgent activity in post-Taliban Afghanistan with the expanding American war in Iraq. Operation Enduring Freedom, May 2005 – January 2009, CMH Pub 70-131-1, Dec 2020. Contains 88 pages, illustrations, tables, maps, and further readings.

Paper on ISKP. “IS Khorasan, the US-Taliban Deal, and the Future of South Asian Security”, ORF Occasional Paper No. 289, December 2020, Observer Research Foundation, pdf, 40 pages. By Kabir Tanej.

The Last Platoon. Bing West’s latest novel is about a platoon in Afghanistan working with the CIA. Read an excerpt from his book. (Military Times, Dec 15, 2020).

Paper – Civilian Death Toll via Airstrikes. Neta C. Crawford has penned a 10-page report entitled Afghanistan’s Rising Civilian Death Toll Due to Airstrikes, 2017-2020, Costs of War, Brown University, December 7, 2020.

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Podcasts, Webcasts, and Videos

Video – Afghan Commando Training. NATO’s Resolute Support HQs has produced a short video about the 14-week long training program that Afghan Commandos complete before being assigned to a Commando kandak. (Dec 29, 2020, 2 mins).

Video – Afghanistan: The French legacy in Kapisa province. A 17 minute long explanation of the French military deployment of troops to Kapisa from 2008 to 2012. France 24, April 12, 2020.

Podcast – Jack Keane on Afghanistan. Gen (Ret) Keane on troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan. See “Jack Keane against the cut and run from Afghanistan”, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), December 11, 2020. (Apple podcast).

Podcast – CIA Official Remembers a Devastating Day in Afghanistan. A former senior CIA intelligence service officer looks back to the day that seven CIA service members were killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. CBS News, December 30, 2020. 34 minutes.

Podcast – A Sniper Section’s Fight in Ghazni. Master Sgt. Brody Hall was a sniper section leader in a scout platoon in the 173rd Airborne Brigade deployed to Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. He describes a fight that highlights a range of lessons about combat and the leadership of NCO’s in the Army. The Spear, Modern War Institute at West Point, December 31, 2020, 53 minutes.


Photo / Image: Afghan Commandos, SIGAR.

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