Afghan Conflict Update – January 2021


News, analysis, and commentary about the war in Afghanistan. Topics include security, Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), Resolute Support, peace negotiations, governance, development, podcasts, videos, and more. Each month SOF News does a roll up of the news, commentary, and analysis on the Afghan conflict and provides a comprehensive update at the end of the month. The links to news articles, reports, and publications are grouped by category. Read what you want to read and skip what you are not interested in.

Afghan News Summary

Afghanistan has seen more than 40 years of conflict – with no end in sight. It is one of the world’s poorest countries and is afflicted with corruption in its government and security forces at every level. The Taliban are in control of much of the rural areas while the central government remains in control of most of the major cities and towns. Millions of refugees and internally displaced persons are reliant on assistance from the international community. The Afghan government relies on donor nations to fund its government, security ministries, and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). While almost everyone agrees that a political settlement is the only way to stop the conflict – the road to success in peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government is paved with obstacles.

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Al Qaeda Gaining Strength in Afghanistan. The U.S. Treasury Department posted a memorandum (Jan 4, 2021) that indicates that al Qaeda is gaining strength under the Taliban’s protection. The terrorist group is capitalizing on its relationship with the Taliban. It provides a “. . . network of mentors and advisors who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support”. Read more in “Al Qaeda ‘gaining strength’ in Afghanistan, U.S. Treasury says”, FDD’s Long War Journal, January 25, 2021.

Afghan Journalists Targeted. It has become commonplace for insurgents to attack members of the Afghan media. Read more in “Afghan journalists are being killed for their work, and they just want to stay alive”, by Ahmad Mukhtar, CBS News, January 21, 2021.

Troubles on Kabul-Kandahar Road. The $300 million Kabul to Kandahar road was meant to be a symbol of the new Afghanistan. However a lot has gone wrong. Read “Highway to Hell: A Trip Down Afghanistan’s Deadliest Road”, Rolling Stone, January 22, 2021.

More on the Chinese Spy Ring in Kabul. The chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) explains why the Afghan government took a ‘low-key’ approach to the expulsion of ten Chinese spies. They were arrested for espionage but quietly moved out of the country back to China on board a chartered Chinese aircraft. (Hindustan Times, Jan 6, 2021). See also “The Uyghur Factor: China perceives Afghanistan as a threat”, Sunday Guardian, January 16, 2021.

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Safe Haven for Terrorists? The agreement signed by the United States and the Taliban includes a provision that transnational terrorist groups will not be able to operate in or from Afghanistan. However, research suggests that the Taliban have no intention of breaking their ties with these groups; but rather, will attempt to control them. Read “Is Afghanistan in Danger of Becoming a Safe Haven for Transnational Terrorists Again?”, by Franz J. Marty, Swiss Institute for Global Affairs, January 5, 2021.

The Taliban and PSYOP. The Taliban’s campaign of targeted assassinations of government officials, key security figures, member of the media, and others is striking fear in Afghanistan. Some believe this is a new strategy to win the support or submission of the population in government-controlled areas through intimidation and psychological warfare. Currently, only 30 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are fully in government hands, with the rest contested or controlled by the Taliban. Read “Psychological Warfare: Taliban Adopts New Strategy in Afghanistan”, Gandhara Blog, January 8, 2021.

Released Taliban Prisoners Rejoin the Fight. Hundreds of Taliban prisoners released last year have rejoined the Taliban. Many of them have been arrested by the Afghan security forces. Over 600 former prisoners that were freed under the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement have been recaptured. (Stars and Stripes, Jan 25, 2021).

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Net Assessment of ANDSF. Jonathan Schroden, the director at the Center for Stability and Development and the Special Operations Program at the CNA Corporation, is a writer and researcher on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and Afghanistan. He provides a ten-page assessment of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and their fight against the Taliban. Read “Afghanistan’s Security Forces Versus the Taliban: A Net Assessment”, CTC Sentinel, West Point, January 2021.

ANA Commanders Reshuffled. General Haibatullah Alizai has been appointed as commander of the Special Operations Corps – replacing General Farid Ahmadi. Colonel Mohammad Ali was appointed as commander of the 4th regiment of the ANASOC. There are new commanders for the 201st and 209th Corps as well. Last month new commanders were announced for the 205th and 215th Corps. There are nine Afghan National Army corps – including the Special Operations Corps. See “MoD Names New Commanders in Reshuffle”, Tolo News, January 8, 2021.

Ghost Policemen in Kandahar. Seventy percent of Afghan national police service members in southern Kandahar province have left their duties. There have been heavy clashes in several of the districts in the province. Over 300 outposts or checkpoints have been abandoned or captured by the Taliban. Read “Only 30 percent of Kandahar police service members are on duty: Governor”, Ariana News, December 31, 2020.

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Resolute Support

The NATO-led Resolute Support Mission continues to enjoy support from the contributions of 38 nations and organizations. Around 10,000 troops are providing training, advice, and assistance (TAA) to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. The majority of RS troops are NATO and partner nation allies of the U.S.

Biden – NATO Discussions. The NATO Secretary-General and the U.S. President discussed a range of challenges that the Afghan conflict presents. Stoltenberg welcomed the president’s focus on rebuilding alliances and agreed to work together on preparing the NATO Summit in Brussels later this year. (Khaama Press, Jan 27, 2021).

SECDEF Review. The new Secretary of Defense is expected to review the security situation and troop levels in Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2021. In its first briefing under the Biden administration the Pentagon warned the Taliban that they are jeopardizing its agreement with the United States for a full U.S. military withdrawal in May. See “Pentagon: Taliban has not met their commitments under withdrawal deal”, The Hill, January 28, 2021.

RS Mission Casualty. An Albanian soldier lost his life on Wednesday, January 20, 2021. The circumstances of his death have not been reported.

STS Airman Awarded Air Force Cross. A member of the 26th Special Tactics Squadron was recognized for his valor during a fierce engagement with the Taliban while serving with a Green Beret team in Afghanistan. (SOF News, Jan 15, 2021).

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Peace Negotiations

Peace Talks Resume. The intra-Afghan peace talks resumed again in early January 2021. The past several months of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban covered procedural issues. The next phase is currently exploring the topics to be discussed. It is certainly a slow process – with the discussions bogged down with resolving minor issues. Negotiations about a permanent ceasefire and a power sharing arrangement have yet to begin. The government’s priority is a ceasefire while the Taliban want to see a power sharing arrangement take place first.

Who is Looking at the Watch? The date for the full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops is May 2021. One gets the feeling that time is running out for the Afghan government and that time is on the side of the Taliban.

A New U.S. Administration. There are indications that the U.S. policy in Afghanistan may be reviewed. It is possible that the Biden administration may modify the troop withdrawal schedule put in place by former President Trump. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, has had his position extended for an unspecified amount of time. (Tolo News, Jan 26, 2021).

Kirby on Afghanistan. The new Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, recently remarked on the peace process.

“The Taliban have not met their commitments. As you know, there is a looming deadline of early May. but without them meeting our commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks on the Afghan National Security Forces and, by dint of that, the Afghan people, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement. The Afghan government has to be involved in this. And thus far, the Taliban has been, to put it politely, reticent to their requirements.”

Afghan Women – Left Behind. The US-Taliban withdrawal agreement fails to include women in the process and outcome in a meaningful way. There has been a failure (according to the authors of this article) to fully integrate a gendered perspective within the U.S. security sector that will lead to more meaningful security assistance for our security partners. Read “A Cornerstone of Peace: Women in Afghanistan”, War Room, United States Army War College, January 8, 2021. See also “The U.S. Must Not Abandon Afghanistan”, by Dr. Sima Samar, Ms. Magazine, January 15, 2021.

A Waiting Game? The calendar plays an important role in peace negotiations. The Afghan government is looking forward to the end of January 2021 when President Biden takes office in Washington, DC. There is a chance that the new administration will reverse President Trump’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan. The Taliban are looking forward to May 2021 when US and NATO forces will vacate Afghanistan completely.

Adjusting the Timeline? The intra-Afghan negotiations began late – by six months. Barnett R. Rubin, a frequent commentator on Afghanistan, argues that the withdrawal timeline for the U.S. needs to be adjusted by six months. Read “How Biden can bring US troops home from Afghanistan”, Responsible Statecraft, January 11, 2021.

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Too Much Conceded by US? Vice President Amrullah Saleh says the United States made a mistake in conceding too much to the Taliban in the February 2020 withdrawal agreement. He says the American mission, which began 20 years ago, is not yet accomplished. (BBC, Jan 14, 2021).

“I am telling them as a friend and as an ally that trusting the Taliban without putting in a verification mechanism is going to be a fatal mistake. The US delegation came to us and swore on every Holy Scripture that if you release these 5,000 Taliban prisoners there will be no violence. We told them at the highest level that our intelligence indicated otherwise, and if we do this violence will spike. Violence has spiked.”

Vice President Amrullah Saleh, January 14, 2021.

US Policy Options. Vanda Felbab-Brown, of the Brookings Institute, explains the various approaches the Biden administration can take in Afghanistan. None are the perfect solution and she explains the pros and cons of each approach. “In Afghanistan, different priorities means vastly different policies”, Brookings, January 15, 2021.

Seth Jones on U.S. Options. “. . . a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan at this point – without an intra-Afghan peace agreement – will likely shift the military balance of power in favor of the Taliban and increase the possibility of an eventual Taliban takeover of the capital city, Kabul, and significant rural and urban areas of the country.” Read more in “Escaping the Graveyard of Empires? U.S. Options in Afghanistan”, by Seth Jones, Defense360, Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 26, 2021.

An Imperfect Solution. It will not be possible to rid the country of the Taliban or to wrest control of the territory they hold from them. A power sharing arrangement is likely to fail. Perhaps dividing the country is the next best option – the east and south to the Taliban, the west and north (and Kabul) to the central government. “The Case for an Imperfect Solution in Afghanistan”, by Sasha Kassam, The Bulwark, January 25, 2021.

What’s Next? Amin Saikal, an adjunct professor at the University of Western Australia and book author, describes three scenarios in the foreseeable future for Afghanistan. Each scenario is deeply troubling. Read his piece in “What’s next for Afghanistan?”, The Strategist, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, January 29, 2021.

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Governance and Politics

An Interim Government? There have been growing calls for the Afghan president to step down and for a transitional government to come to power with Taliban participation. This idea has been floated by U.S. officials, some Afghan opposition members, Pakistan, and the Taliban. Read more in “Would An Afghan Interim Government Help or Hinder Peace Efforts?”, by Frud Bezhan, Gandhara Blog, January 14, 2021.

Power Sharing in Afghanistan? Patricia Karam, the regional director of the Middle East and North Africa International Republican Institute, worries that a power sharing arrangement in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. She points to Lebanon’s power sharing struggles in the past several decades as an example of power sharing gone bad. Read “Afghanistan should be wary of a government with power sharing”, The Hill, January 26, 2021.

Living Under Taliban Rule? A series of reports explore Taleban rule in territories under their control. A look at a district in Kunduz province describes what it is like to live under Taleban control. Read “Living with the Taleban: Local experiences in Dasht-e Archi district, Kunduz province“, Afghanistan Analysts Network, January 25, 2021. See also “Living with the Taleban: Local experiences in Nad Ali district, Helmand province”, AAN, January 18, 2021.

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Economy and Development

UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has released the 2021 revised version of Afghanistan’s multi-year Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP 2018-2021).

Economic Barriers. Afghanistan remains one of the least developed countries in the world. The country is handicapped with social, political, economic, cultural, and geographical barriers. Read more in “The Economic Barriers of Development in Afghanistan”,, January 17, 2021.

Ancient Afghan Treasure. The Afghan government and parliament are battling over a budget. There are some people concerned that Afghanistan’s greatest treasure trove could be looted. Read “Ancient Treasure and a Modern Battle in Afghanistan”, The Diplomat, January 29, 2021.

China and Mining. Desperate to jump-start its economy, Afghanistan is anxious for China to develop the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. However, the arrangements with China on a number of economic and development fronts is now under question after the bust of the Chinese spy ring in Kabul. (Foreign Policy, 27 Jan 2021, paywall).

Militants Control Drug Trade. According to the counter-narcotics department of the Ministry of Interior militant groups such as the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Daesh are the main backers of drug trafficking in Afghanistan. (Tolo News, Jan 2, 2021).

The Taliban and Schools. The Taliban regime (when it was still in power) was at times pragmatic when it came to girls schools. If the schools were bundled by an international humanitarian aid organization with other projects then the existence of the schools were sometimes overlooked. Read “The Swede Who Convinced Taliban to Allow Girls Schools”, Radio Free Europe, January 26, 2021.

Expensive Weddings Leave Afghans in Debt. Opulent weddings have became commonplace but they leave young Afghans a desperate situation. See “Ridiculously Expensive Weddings Are Leaving Young Afghans in Debt”, by Ali M Latifi,, January 25, 2021.

Hunger and Disease Haunt an Afghan Remote Region. One of Afghanistan’s most isolated regions is suffering high levels of hardship this winter. Harsh weather, poverty, and food shortages are chronic problems for residents of the Wakhan Corridor. But this year COVID-19 appears to be taking a toll as well. “Cold, Hunger, and Disease Wreck Havoc in Afghanistan’s ‘Rooftop’ Community”, by Nimatullah Ahmadi, Gandhara Blog, January 25, 2021.

Railways, Iran, and Afghanistan. The first railway link between Iran and Afghanistan was finally finished in December 2020. This is a big step forward in increasing Afghan-Iran trade and opening up Afghan goods to the rest of the world through the Iranian port of Chabahar. But there is more in the plan than just trade between Iran and Afghanistan. Read “Iran’s railway ambitions go beyond Afghanistan”, by Maysam Bizaer, Atlantic Council, January 4, 2021.

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Books, Reports, and Publications

Book Excerpt – First Platoon. If you traveled around Afghanistan for any amount of time you would be hard pressed to find a FOB or COP that did not have a big balloon hovering overhead. These Persistent Ground Surveillance Systems (PGSS) provided force protection and intelligence gathering capabilities throughout Afghanistan. A new book by Annie Jacobsen entitled First Platoon provides some details on the PGSS. Read “Palantir’s God’s-Eye View of Afghanistan“,, January 20, 2021.

SIGAR Report – Cash Smuggling at Afghan Airport. A 15-page report was published by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction detailing deficiencies in the ability to detect cash smuggling at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. SIGAR 21-15-SP, PDF, Jan 2021.

Paper on Afghanistan – UK. The Select Committee on International Relations and Defence has published a paper entitled The UK and Afghanistan. Annotated as HL Paper 208, 13 January 2021.

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Podcasts, Webcasts, Movies, and Videos

Movie – ‘Ashley’s War’. In August 2011 Lt. Ashley Stumpf was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. She was a member of a Cultural Support Team (CST) attached to a special operations unit. A movie is in the works about her. “Ashley’s War and the story of the women of special operations is coming to the big screen”, Military Times, January 11, 2021.


Photo: Members of the General Command of Police Special Units (GCPSU). The Ministry of Interior has responsibility for fielding police special units. These include the Provincial Special Units (PRUs) as well as the national level special police units such as CRU 222, CF 333, and ATF 444.

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