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'Gaining ground'

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
July 29, 2014

While Kabul is in the midst of an election audit, the Taliban are making territorial gains elsewhere in Afghanistan. While of lesser strategic value, these gains are of symbolic importance, says ICG analyst Graeme Smith.

Afghanistan Taliban Kämpfer Waffe
Image: T.White/AFP/Getty Images

The election audit comes at a critical time for Afghanistan as the international community winds down its combat mission and foreign aid dwindles. The successful completion of the electoral process, which has been marred by allegations of widespread fraud between presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, is therefore key to ensure a peaceful transfer of power in the conflict-ridden country. However, attacks by the Taliban have intensified recently, with dozens of assaults reported last weekend alone.

Moreover, on July 29, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's powerful cousin, a close ally of presidential candidate Ghani, was killed in a suicide bomb attack, deepening political strains. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

In a DW interview, Graeme Smith, a senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), says that the battle for the presidency and the spike in insurgent attacks currently appear to be unrelated. However, he cautions that the Taliban's territorial gains are of symbolic importance, as they show the militants' ability to confront Afghan forces in face-to-face battle.

DW: To which extent are the Taliban militants profiting from the current electoral dispute to launch attacks?

Graeme Smith: There is no strong connection, so far, between the electoral crisis in Afghanistan and the rising number of insurgent attacks. The International Crisis Group predicted higher levels of violence in 2014 on the basis of field research the previous year, which showed Afghan government forces suffering greater pressure from the insurgency as international troops withdraw.

Graeme Smith, Afghanistan expert at the International Crisis Group
Smith: "There is no strong connection, so far, between the electoral crisis in Afghanistan and the rising number of insurgent attacks"Image: International Crisis Group

That prediction has proven correct, unfortunately, and security conditions will probably continue to worsen in 2015 as the Taliban and other groups pursue military gains in the absence of their powerful NATO enemies. Only a tiny fraction of the violence this summer can be attributed to tensions between the candidates for the Afghan presidency.

Are the Taliban gaining control of areas of strategic importance?

None of the locations seized by the Taliban this year have significant value in a strategic military sense. Insurgents are gaining territory, but these are mostly incremental gains in remote districts.

In a few places, such as the Sangin district of Helmand province, the insurgents appear to be driving toward economic aims - for example, seizing control of Highway 611 would give the insurgents control of an important drug-smuggling route between the poppy fields of northern Helmand and the narcotics markets in Iran and Pakistan - but it's not clear that those financial goals were fulfilled during the most recent fighting season.

Perhaps the greatest importance of these offensives to the Taliban is symbolic. By attacking the Registan district administration buildings recently, the insurgents achieved nothing militarily except harassing an isolated outpost in the desert - but they showed an ability to confront Afghan forces in face-to-face battle, which has political significance.

Were these areas previously occupied by foreign troops?

All of the places where the insurgents are showing greater strength this year were previously zones of responsibility for international forces. Violence has increased in Kunduz province, where Germans fought and died.

The areas previously guarded by Norwegians, in the Faryab province, are also markedly worse. Canadian troops left behind a growing war in Kandahar, as did the British in Helmand. Perhaps the sharpest deterioration in security this year happened in the eastern provinces where US forces took lead responsibility for security in previous years.

How much of a threat does the current offensive pose?

A lot depends on the way international donors choose to support the Afghan forces. The donors need to re-consider the assumptions of the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, which heard some excessively optimistic predictions about the insurgency diminishing. The Chicago agreement called for a reduction of the Afghan forces to 228,000 personnel as the insurgency decreased - but the war is more intense now than it was in 2012.

A key question is whether the donors will expand their annual pledges of support so that Afghans can maintain their current personnel rosters of roughly 370,000. Of course, another important factor will be the Afghan government's ability to use those resources wisely. Squabbles over the disputed presidential election could make it hard for Afghanistan to advocate for itself at the NATO summit in Wales this September.

Graeme Smith is a senior Afghanistan analyst based in Kabul for the International Crisis Group.