The US president ended the country’s 20-year war in Afghanistan by announcing an unconditional withdrawal. However, since then the war in Afghanistan has entered a new phase because the Taliban know that the Afghan government forces have lost Washington’s air support and military advice. From now on, one can see a remarkable shift in the Taliban's war policy, including returning to regular warfare, spreading the war over a wide geography, using reserve forces, and focusing on the northern provinces.
The Institute for East Strategic Studies (IESS) and The Institute of Strategy Researchers of the Contemporary World held a joint webinar on Tuesday, June 29, dubbed as "Developments of Afghanistan: withdrawal of NATO troops & new wave of Taliban attacks." General Director of Iran Foreign Ministry's West Asia Department Seyyed Rasoul Mousavi, former deputy director of the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) Mohsen Rouhi Sefat, Senior Analyst of International Affairs Abdulshakur Salangi, and the researcher at IESS Javid Hosseini, were the participants in this webinar.
IESS has divided the lectures into four sections. The second part is related to the remarks of Javid Hosseini, a researcher at IESS.
The US President Joe Biden ended the country’s 20-year war in Afghanistan by announcing an unconditional withdrawal. However, since then the war in Afghanistan has entered a new phase because the Taliban know that the Afghan government forces have lost Washington’s air support and military advice. From now on, one can see a remarkable shift in the Taliban's war policy, and this policy will continue in the future months. Some of the most important features of the Taliban's war policy are:
Returning to regular warfare
Since the Taliban’s re-emergence in 2005, the group's war tactics have changed due to a variety of variables. This group has experienced a variety of tactics, including regular warfare, suicide attacks, IEDs, and guerilla attacks.
One of the most important changes in the Taliban's behavior over the last two months is their shift to regular warfare. The airstrikes by the US and Afghan forces had inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban fighters during the regular warfare, prompting the group to abandon this tactic and resort to suicide, explosive and guerrilla attacks instead. But, after the withdrawal of United States from Afghanistan, one of the Taliban’s most obvious tactics is return to regular warfare.
However, the factor of air strikes by the Afghan government forces is still remain, which will be addressed later in this report.
Spreading the war over a wide geography
Given their assessment of the Afghan military and their capabilities for conducting air operations, the Taliban have adopted appropriate war tactics. In the face of the Taliban's regular warfare, the ordinary army and police forces have no efficiency, and the Afghan government relies on two important tools: air strikes and special forces (specially trained and equipped units in the ANA and police).
Whenever the two have worked together against the Taliban, they have managed to inflict heavy defeats on the group. But, the number and power of these two arms of the Afghan government are limited. Therefore, due to these restrictions, this time the Taliban have cleverly dragged their war to a vaster geography in a bid to hinder these two groups’ activities.
Focusing on northern regions
It seems that in their new attacks, the Taliban have concentrated on the northern provinces. 77 districts in northern parts of Afghanistan have been captured by the group over the last two months. This comes as this number is 41 districts in the south, 3 districts in the east, 13 districts in the west and 5 districts in the center.
The most important analysis that can be mentioned for this policy is that the Taliban will have the hardest job in the north, due to its past experience at the time of fall of Emirate as well as its unfamiliarity with the region. So, this group have launched new operations to capture the northern regions before formation of any kind of resistance.
The danger of the anti-Taliban figures such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur - especially Dostum who is more uncompromising - is serious for the Taliban. That is why the Taliban's attack on the north can be interpreted as a surprise or preemptive tactic.
Using all the capacity
The number of the Taliban fighters has always been one of the ambiguities, and at the same time, a disputed issue among the experts.
But, it is generally believed that these forces fall into two categories:
- Warring forces
- Reserve or seasonal forces
Experts and research institutes cite various figures about the total number of these forces, most of whom enter the battlefield only at the climax of the war. John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, announced in a speech at the US Institute of Peace that the Taliban has 60,000 full-time fighters and 90,000 seasonal ones.
Given the dispersal of the war over a wide geography as well as the large number of fighters the Taliban are using in these attacks, it can be said that the Taliban more likely have used the full capacity of their forces at this time.
Increasing the populations and districts under control
Population and geography are two important components of power, and it seems that the Taliban have placed these important issues on their agenda. Prior to the consecutive fall of the districts, it was estimated that 88 districts out of Afghanistan's 388 districts were under the Taliban’s control (22 percent), which includes 5.5 million of Afghanistan's 33 million population. Following the change of Taliban's war policy, the non-stop fall of the districts has begun since April 14, 2021 and 128 districts have been captured by the Taliban so far, of which 16 districts have been recaptured. It should be noted that even some districts were evacuated by the Afghan forces without any clashes due to the high cost of resistance as well as the non-strategic location of those districts. Thus, in a two-month period, the Taliban have managed to double the size of geography and population under their control.
Controlling highways and customs
Another policy have pursued by the Taliban in the new phase of the war is to control Afghanistan's highways and customs. The group is trying to capture the strategic points along Afghanistan's Ring Road, especially the Kabul highway to the north. It has also carried out numerous attacks on bordering areas adjacent to Tajikistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and has succeeded to capture the customs of Ai-Khanoum and Shir Khan Bandar on the border with Tajikistan. Moreover, the Hairatan customs on the border with Uzbekistan, the Aqina customs on the border with Turkmenistan and the Islam Qala customs on the border with Iran are in danger, and the Afghan government has recently deployed hundreds of troops in the Hairatan customs’ security belts.
This tactic could have two major benefits for the Taliban. First, in addition to military pressure, economic pressure could be imposed on the government. According to reports, the volume of entry to Afghanistan's customs has fallen sharply due to insecurity, which has a negative impact on the revenue of the Afghan government. Another benefit is the revenue the Taliban can earn via collecting taxes in these areas.
Given the lack of effective deterrents to the Taliban on the one hand, and US policy which is a green light to the group's actions, on the other, the Taliban's war policy is expected to continue for the next two months, resulting in consecutive fall of the districts and the group's dominance over Afghanistan's vital economic zones.
The Taliban’s approach will probably change from seizing districts to seizing the provincial capitals in the next two months unless an effective tool changes the game. A combination of government forces and public uprising forces could also make a significant difference in the game rules.
Over the next months, if the Taliban feel an international pressure, they may return to the negotiating table with the upper hand, otherwise the status quo will continue.
The Taliban don’t want Afghanistan's political isolation because they need effective engagement with the influential countries, in order to have an effective presence in power and maintain their desired governance. Therefore, the first scenario is more likely and negotiations with the Afghan factions will probably begin before the cold season.
Another significant point regarding Afghanistan’s developments is the possibility of the rise of the ISIS. Given the fact that the Taliban and the Afghan government are using all their capacities against each other, a third actor, the ISIS, could find an opportunity to emerge.