Taliban ups severity of attacks in Afghanistan: Is an 'expert military' hand behind fresh wave of terror?

The Taliban and their sponsors seem to be making a statement written in letters of blood. The violence during last week has been horrific even by Afghan standards, where suicide bombings and Afghans killing Afghans have ceased being news. However, not only the Taliban but the rather amorphous Islamic State of Khorasan – which is the Afghan chapter of the Islamic state – have outdone themselves in showcasing the ease with which they can commit havoc across the country.

Over the last seven days, there have been seven severe attacks in six different parts of Afghanistan, causing casualties in triple digits. All of the attacks were against the security forces, with the most serious against the police. The most recent killed 15 cadets from the United States-funded Marshal Fahim Military School located on the outskirts of Kabul city.

Taliban ups severity of attacks in Afghanistan: Is an expert military hand behind fresh wave of terror?

Representational image. Reuters

While one source reported a Taliban claim of the attack, this has yet to be uploaded on the Taliban website, even though it did claim another attack in Shindand on the same day. Clearly, careful thought is being given to what is claimed in the group's name and what is not as part of a carefully thought out military strategy, that is being implemented days before the visit of US defence secretary Rex Tillerson to Pakistan.

There is little doubt that there is a clear and expert military hand on the tiller of Afghan strategy. Firstly, their attacks methods have improved vastly, accounting for a 35 percent spike in casualties of security forces according to United States sources. The first use of stolen American Humvees was seen in early 2016, when they tried ineffectually to enter a police camp in Helmand. Later, Taliban tactics changed to one that sought to deliberately capture enemy equipment during raids.

By the end of the year, broad estimates of the number of Humvees and Ranger pick up trucks that had vanished into Taliban hands had reached nearly a hundred. It did not take long for their attacks to weave in the Humvees to the greatest effect. On 19 October, Taliban forces stormed an army unit in Maiwand, and virtually destroyed the camp, killing almost the entire unit of 60. Available reporting indicates that an explosive loaded Humvee was used to enter the camp, and probably one more car bomb.

The tactic was a repeat of an attack on Paktia two day earlier against a police camp, which killed 41 policemen and the Provincial police chief. The Humvee has since become a favourite vehicle. Not only does it make an excellent cover for Taliban dressed in Afghan army uniforms, it creates a rain of shrapnel following a blast. The fact that an American vehicle is used to wreak havoc is a good addition to flaunt to the media.

A second instance therefore of a fine military hand at work is in terms of Taliban media management. Unlike the Islamic State, the Taliban once used to destroy cell phone towers, and claimed their attacks through spokespersons, sometimes through a telephone, or through the radio. But that's all in the past. Their website is slick, as are the videos of their prowess, often refuting Afghan government claims to a ludicrous degree.

Cell phone towers are no longer targeted, but used skillfully, with cadres uploading their own videos during an attack while directing towers in the vicinity to stop their signals. This means that the only information to come out of the area is from Taliban sources. Another instance was during the Maiwand attack, when a drone was used to film the whole episode, to showcase Taliban military prowess.

The thumbing of the nose to the United States was also consistent. An earlier video showed a Taliban fighter driving around in a Humvee, and obviously having a great time. There is still, however, a 'split personality' quality about Taliban propaganda and media strategy. At one level, their claims continue to be couched in ornate language, reminiscent of period Soviet handouts. On the other is the directed use of cell phone videos and drone footage to send a message. The latter comes out from studios in Pakistan, and the directing hand is therefore clear.

The third instance of direction as part of a strategy is the announcement of the holding of a meeting Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) shortly after the visit of Pakistan army chief Qamar Bajwa to Kabul. The QCG, which is made up of the United States, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, held its first meeting in January 2016 with the avowed intent of ensuring an "Afghan-led, Afghan-owned" peace process.

Shorn of the diplomatese, the objective was to get Pakistan to deliver the Taliban for negotiations. A revival of this forum just after the announcement of the new United States' Afghan strategy is hardly a matter of chance. The group met in Oman, where it decided to pursue a strategy of "communication, ceasefire and peace talks".  It would also form committees for these purposes, and also to work to bring in the Taliban into talks at 'neutral locations'’.

Yet another meeting is scheduled to discuss Taliban pre-conditions, which include recognition of its office in Doha. In South Asian parlance, the forming of committees is usually a bureaucratic ruse to delay and fuddle the actual issue to the advantage of the particular bureaucracy involved.

In this case, of course, it is Pakistan's military and foreign policy bureaucracy which has to deliver. So, the QCG essentially buys time for the Pakistan military to work itself as usual into a US strategy, and then turn it to advantage for itself, while the foreign office uses its not so inconsiderable expertise to convince foreign interlocutors.

While Trump has been at the receiving end of media gibes, the fact remains that the US government as a whole has now considerable experience of Afghanistan and the Pakistani tactics involved. The problem, however, is that while Pakistani intentions remain unchanged, and indeed have been consistent for more than thirty years, the US strategy has shifted even in the time of a single administration from persuasion, bribery and the threats.

The trick is to stay the course, and keep the pressure up, an issue that is likely to be difficult at a time of a somewhat mercurial president. The Pakistanis may be right on their evaluation of the United States and its leadership. However, the Trump Presidency has also shown a willingness to use force. The last one in Afghanistan – now known as the "Mother of all Bombs"  – was only a few miles away from Pakistani land. That's a message that Pakistan could understand, even if they refuse to recognise it just yet.

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Updated Date: Oct 23, 2017 17:14:30 IST

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