The Afghan Campaign and the Death of Mullah Omar

The exact circumstances surrounding the reports of Mullah Omar’s death remain unclear, and some facts remain uncertain. It does seem likely, however, that the central power structure of the Taliban covered up his death in 2013 in an effort to preserve its influence, motivate Taliban fighters, and take advantage of the loyalty oath that those who join the Taliban took to Omar.

It also seems clear that—in spite of denials of Omar’s death by those who were around him in “Taliban central”—Omar did not endorse peace negotiations and has not been actively planning Taliban military campaigns for some time. The fact that Omar only gave a “post-deathbed endorsement” of peace negotiations seems to have led to Taliban statements that Omar never did endorse such negotiations on July 29—only a day after the Afghan government publicly announced Omar’s death.

In any case, the public confirmation of Omar’s death raises three key questions for Afghanistan:

  • What does this mean in terms of the leadership of the insurgency against the Afghan government;
  • How will it affect the course of the fighting, and
  • How will it affect any future peace negotiations?

In practice, the real answers to all three questions will only become apparent with time. It is easy to speculate and to suggest that Omar’s death will lead to major power struggles, to a weakening of the insurgent military effort, or to the success or failure of peace negotiations.

Predicting a future has never made one happen. The most that can be said at this point is that the future importance of the top level leadership of the Taliban must be kept in careful perspective, that the Taliban and other insurgents are making major military gains and may continue to do so, and that peace negotiations are a two-edged sword and can easily become an extension of war by other means.

The Uncertain Nature of Any Power Struggles within the Taliban

It is clear from a number of reports that there have been clashes between various insurgent elements this year. What is not clear is that they have been driven by some major power struggle between the leaders of the Taliban, rather than by the kind of local infighting that has been common among Afghan warlords, local and tribal fighters, and insurgent factions in past years.

The claims some made before the announcement of Omar’s death that the Taliban was becoming deeply divided, and suffering from some form war fatigue, could prove to be true in the future, but they seem to have been based more on what those observers wanted to see than the on evidence. In any case, almost all successful insurgencies exhibit deep fracture lines and internal fighting and power struggles, and it is far from clear that major power struggles will follow the announcement of Omar’s death, have a major impact on the military efforts of various insurgent factions, or equal the negative impact of the power struggles and problems within the Afghan government.

The names of possible replacement leaders that could either replace Omar or participate in a top-level power struggle quickly surfaced in various media reports. These included Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, Omar’s principal deputy and aide and the figure who seems to have acted for Omar after Omar’s death to have and accepted peace negotiations either as a real goal or as a way of gaining political leverage.

Others speculated that they could include figures like Abdul Ghani Baradar, whose status and authority is more uncertain than Mansour’s, but has given him significant visibility, and Omar’s son Yacub, who is a young seminary graduate. Some reports indicated that Yacub might be backed by senior Taliban military military leaders like Mullah Abdul Qayuum Zakir, but others feel the only reason Yacub is being named is that he is Omar’s son.

While the facts are not fully clear at this writing, press reports from Pakistan indicate that Mansour was chosen as the new leader at a meeting near or in Quetta on July 31, but at a meeting where Mansour chose those who attended rather than a formal meeting of Taliban Leadership Council. These same reports indicate that Yacub and Omar’s younger brother, Abdul Manan, walked out of the meeting, and that Zakir did push for Omar’s son to be the new leader.

At the same time, reports indicated that Sirajuddin Haqqani, generally regarded as a hardline fighter and a member of the same family as Jalaluddin Haqqani – the founder of the relatively extreme Haqqani faction –was named as Mansour’s deputy. This came a day after the sudden announcement that that Jalaluddin Haqqani had actually died a year earlier – in a strange parallel to the delay in announcing the death of Omar.

Some reports indicated that Mansour had agreed to peace negotiations under Pakistani pressure and did not have the support of Taliban Leadership Council and at least some key fighters. A report in the New York Times on August 2nd stated that Mansour had the back of key Taliban leaders as well as the Haqqani faction, but that,

A few dissident voices have emerged, however, to claim that Mullah Mansour’s selection was the work of a small faction of his supporters and that a far larger gathering of Taliban leaders is necessary to select Mullah Omar’s successor. ..Mullah Abdul Manan Niazi, who was a provincial governor in the north and west of Afghanistan during the Taliban era, said in an interview Saturday that “the great mujahedeen, clerics, fighting commanders who have been part of the Islamic emirate for 20 years were all excluded from the succession meeting.”

What is is clear that Mansour issued a statement on the Taliban web site on August 1st saying that, “We will continue our jihad until the creation of an Islamic system. The enemy with their talk of peace are trying by the propaganda to weaken the jihad…Where there is disunity, Allah will be unhappy and only enemies will be happy. We have fought for 25 years and we will not lose our achievements.” He describe the peace process as the “words of the enemies.”

So far, these exercises in “Talibanology” bears more resemblance to “Kremlinology,” than a clear picture of the Taliban’s future unity, fighting capability, and interest in peace Speculation aside, the lack of clear facts match Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Even if what is sometimes called the Quetta Taliban does agree on the announcement of a new leader, it will be weeks or months before it is clear how many Taliban commanders follow and how it affects the overall insurgency and its broader support.

Barring the emergence of a figure who is charismatic enough to command really broad religious and military support, the end result may be to shift power away from the image of Omar to a new mix of key military leaders and elements within the Taliban, the Haqqani and Hekmatyer factions, non-Pashtun insurgents in the north, and Afghan factions that have aligned themselves with ISIL or the Islamic State.

In fact, one thing that the reaction to Omar’s death has highlighted is the lack of credible public reporting on the size, structure, and leadership of given Taliban and other insurgent factions, the areas they influence or control, the current role of Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in influencing them, and how the impact of the Pakistani campaign against Pakistan’s own Islamist extremists has driven Pakistani Taliban and fighters into Afghanistan in ways that affect the balance of power among Afghan fighters.

This is critical to assessing the impact of making Omar’s death public and any divisions within the Taliban and other insurgents that follow. The Taliban is not a weakening movement under pressure. It may not be winning at the national level, but it is making serious gains, it is putting more and more pressure on the Afghan security forces and structure of governance in the field, and its fighters have reason to be optimistic.

The Afghan Government Threat to the Afghan Government

The problems in assessing Omar’s death also highlight a crippling failure in most efforts to assess the balance of power and outcome of the war: the lack of any effort at net assessment to make an objective comparison of the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan government and the insurgents.

The Taliban and other insurgents face a divided and uncertain Afghan central government—as much because of the rivalries between power brokers and warlords as any tension between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and driven by the increasingly divisive role that former president Karzai has chosen to play.

And, these problems at the center and within what can only be called “Kabulstan” are compounded by the fact that the war is being fought at many different local and regional levels in a nation with weaknesses in provincial governance, ineffective district governors and police chiefs, endemic corruption, and cuts in outside aid and military spending.

In many ways, the broad spectrum of power brokers and local leaders make the Afghan government as much a threat to the Afghan government as the insurgents. Moreover, the fighting is affected by the sharp differences in security, wealth, development, tribes, ethnicity and sect between provinces and districts in what is still one of the poorest and least-developed countries in the world.

Like politics, all insurgency is local, and one has only to look at a World Bank study issued in November 2014 called Afghanistan: Provincial Briefs or any of the global rankings of governance, corruption, and human development indicators to see the sheer scale of the problems and weaknesses within the Afghan central government. Any analysis that focuses on the strength and unity of the enemy as the only threat by definition ignores the reality that every serious insurgency occurs because of the failures in the national government.

U.S. Department of Defense Reporting on the Strength of the Taliban and Other Insurgent Threats

That said, it is equally critical to move beyond talking about the Taliban’s central power structure, and focus on the progress in the fighting and the Taliban’s failures and successes.

The best recent official U.S. assessment of the Taliban threat is provided in the latest Department of Defense (DoD) Report on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan, which was issued in June 2015. This report did raise the possibility of Omar’s death and mentioned the extent to which his leadership had become unclear.

The DoD report did not provide useful data on the current size and character of the Taliban and other insurgent movements, or the on growing size of insurgent areas of influence relative to those where the power struggles in the Afghan government and its defeats were making it weak and ineffective or losing control. Like most such U.S. reporting, it ignored key aspects of an insurgency where the relative balance of control and influence is usually more important than the number of tactical incidents or clashes. In that sense, the Pentagon seems to have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam rather than learned from its mistakes.

The Department of Defense report did, however, describe a strong, continuing overall threat where it is unclear any political power struggles at the top will reduce its effectiveness rather than give more active and military-oriented leaders added power and influence:

The Taliban-led insurgency remains resilient. The Taliban officially announced that it would primarily target foreigners and Afghan government officials during this fighting season, though civilian casualties still result often from Taliban attacks. The Taliban continues to test the ANDSF and has maintained its presence in some rural areas. It continues to attempt to convince Afghans that its temporary tactical successes are strategic victories. The group will likely feel emboldened by the coalition’s transition from combat operations to a TAA role, and an accompanying reduction in combat enablers. (p. 8)


The emergence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or Daesh) activity in Afghanistan is of concern to U.S., coalition, Afghan, and other regional governments, as well as to extremist groups that have been operating in the region for some time. ISIL will likely continue to try to expand its presence in Afghanistan during the upcoming year, and it will compete for relevance with the Taliban and other extant terrorist and insurgent groups. (p. 8)

The Taliban-led insurgency does not currently represent an existential threat to the Afghan government but continues to test the ANDSF as the coalition draws down, often using indiscriminate, high profile attacks that harm innocent civilians. Despite an uptick in violence before the fighting season, the ANDSF have proven largely capable of defending against direct insurgent attacks. (pp. 26-27)

Collectively, terrorist and insurgent groups continued to present a formidable challenge to Afghan, U.S., and coalition forces during the reporting period. In 2014, the insurgency modified its tactics, launching direct attacks against ANDSF checkpoints and smaller garrisons to test the responsiveness of Afghan and coalition forces. However, the overall capability of insurgents remained static while the ANDSF continued to improve and adapt to the drawdown of U.S. and coalition support. (pp. 26-27)

Al Qaeda activities remained more focused on survival than on planning and facilitating future attacks. The organization has a sustained presence in Afghanistan of probably fewer than 100 operatives concentrated largely in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces, where they remain year-round. In the border districts between Kunar and Nuristan provinces, al Qaeda received support from local Taliban and at least tacit support from the local populace. Outside these provinces, the number of al Qaeda fighters fell during the winter, in line with seasonal norms; however, these fighters began to infiltrate back into provinces, including Ghazni, Zabul, and Wardak in the spring. (pp. 26-27)

The resilient Taliban-led insurgency remains an enduring threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces, as well as to the Afghan people. The Taliban has been weakened by continued pressure, but has not yet been defeated. Politically, they have become increasingly marginalized. Continued doubts about whether the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is still alive may have caused some disagreement within the organization. Other senior Taliban leaders disagreed on the prioritization of their political and military efforts. (pp. 26-27)

Although the Taliban spread its footprint across the country, it suffered considerable casualties and did not accomplish any of its major strategic or operational objectives in 2014. Early in the reporting period, insurgents emphasized high-profile attacks against soft targets—particularly in Kabul—in order to undermine perceptions of improved security and increased public confidence in the Afghan government. These strikes garnered considerable media attention, while requiring minimal resources and entailing little risk; however, many of these attacks killed innocent bystanders. These attacks slowed precipitously in January and February 2015. Insurgents continued to seek to conduct high-profile attacks in other population centers – as well as against remote outposts – to garner media attention, to project an image of robust capability, and to expand perceptions of insecurity. (pp. 26-27)

Many Taliban fighters suffered from acute resource shortfalls. Numerous Taliban fighters continue to fight and die at high rates while their senior leaders remain in safe havens in Pakistan. The absence of coalition combat units on the battlefield has also weakened one of the principal propaganda lines for the Taliban armed struggle: that they seek to rid Afghanistan of “malevolent foreign influences.” Now they are fighting almost exclusively against their fellow Afghans. (pp. 26-27)

The Taliban officially announced the beginning of the fighting season as April 24, 2015, stating it would target foreigners and Afghan government officials. In preparation for the fighting season, insurgents sought to prepare the battle space by attempting to secure safe havens and facilitation routes throughout the country. Yet insurgents had to contend with independent and advised offensive ANDSF operations over the reporting period, specifically ANDSF shaping operations in northern Helmand, as well as Pakistani military operations that likely disrupted some Pakistan-based insurgent sanctuaries.

Additionally, the insurgency mounted coordinated attacks but was generally overmatched when engaged by ANDSF; it could not capture or destroy well-defended targets and was unable to hold key terrain. Nevertheless, the insurgency remained determined, maintained or consolidated its influence in traditional rural strongholds, and carried out attacks with a similar frequency to a year ago. Although of limited tactical effect, these attacks allowed the Taliban to reap potential publicity gains. The Afghan government will continue to struggle to compete with the Taliban in the information space. (pp. 26-27)

Of the groups involved in the Taliban-led insurgency, the Haqqani Network remained the greatest threat to U.S., coalition, and Afghan forces and continues to be a critical enabler of al Qaeda. The Haqqani Network and affiliated groups share the goals of expelling U.S. and coalition forces, overthrowing the Afghan government, and re-establishing an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The Haqqani Network led the insurgency in the eastern Afghan provinces of Paktika, Paktiya, and Khost, and demonstrated the capability and intent to support and launch high-profile, complex attacks across the country and in the Kabul region. Recent Pakistani military operations have caused some disruption to the Haqqani Network; however, it has still been able to plan and conduct attacks.

In response to several dangerous threat streams against U.S., coalition, and Afghan personnel—particularly in Kabul—U.S. and Afghan special operations forces increased security operations against the Haqqani Network during this reporting period. These operations disrupted several dangerous threats streams that sought to inflict significant casualties on the force. (pp. 26-27)

The coalition and the Afghan government watched closely ISIL’s attempt to expand its reach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The potential emergence of ISIL has sharply focused the ANDSF, NDS, and Afghan political leadership. All are collaborating closely in order to prevent this threat from expanding. Thus far, U.S. forces have seen some evidence of limited recruiting efforts, and a few individuals formerly associated with other militant groups have “rebranded” themselves as members of “ISIL of Khorasan Province.” This rebranding is most likely an attempt to attract media attention, solicit greater resources, and increase recruitment. Yet ISIL’s presence and influence in Afghanistan remains in the initial exploratory phase. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has publicly expressed support for ISIL as the leader of the global jihad; however, the Taliban has declared that it will not allow ISIL in Afghanistan. (pp. 26-27)

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 10,548 civilian casualties in 2014, the highest on record in a single year with a particular increase in casualties among women and children. UNAMA attributed this increase in overall civilian casualties to more frequent and larger ground engagements between the ANDSF and insurgents in populated areas. In the first three months of 2015, civilian casualties from ground engagements rose by eight percent compared to the same period in 2014. (p. 30)

Despite guidance from Taliban leadership in its various codes of conduct (layeha) to protect civilian lives, insurgent actions continue to be responsible for the vast majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The findings of the most recent UNAMA report on civilian casualties are consistent with Afghans’ views that insurgents are overwhelmingly to blame for these vents. From December 1, 2014, to May 22, 2015, insurgents caused approximately 87 percent of all civilian casualties; ANDSF caused approximately 4 percent; coalition forces caused less than 1 percent; and the responsible parties for the remaining incidents are unknown. (p. 31)

Growing Taliban and Insurgent Success in the Fighting in 2014 and 2015

The DoD report provided an estimate of the coming fighting in 2015 that needs careful attention in assessing the impact of Omar’s death, any potential power struggles in the Taliban at the political level, the Taliban’s need to negotiate, and the extent to which Taliban unity affects the overall course of the war:

The stability of the Afghan government and the performance of the ANDSF throughout the 2015 fighting season will have a significant impact on the future threat posed in Afghanistan. Collectively, terrorist and insurgent groups will continue to present a formidable challenge to Afghan forces as they strive to maintain their relevance and prominence. The insurgency’s strategy will likely remain unchanged in 2015, and the conflict will likely continue to intensify over the next few months as warmer weather prevails. (p. 31)


The proactive actions of the ANDSF.prior to the traditional fighting season have helped set more favorable conditions, and RS leaders expect the ANDSF to maintain a steady OPTEMPO into the summer. Strong ANDSF performance will have an impact on potential reconciliation efforts. Overall, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be able to defeat the ANDSF on the battlefield in 2015. However, insurgent propaganda will remain challenging to counter, as the insurgents advertise the perceived “inevitability” of their victory and the coalition’s perceived “abandonment” of the Afghan people. (p. 32)

The Taliban-led insurgency will likely feel emboldened by the coalition’s transition from direct combat operations to a TAA role and an accompanying reduction of coalition combat enablers. As a result, the Taliban will likely continue to test the ANDSF aggressively in 2015, as it did in 2014, to ascertain the limitations of the RS mission. Insurgents will likely focus on traditional areas of operation (such as in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces) and will likely employ indirect fire and small arms attacks against targets of opportunity. Most insurgent-initiated violence will likely continue to occur away from populated areas. However, complex attacks are projected to increase during this fighting season. The Taliban will continue to portray localized, temporary tactical successes as strategic victories through the media. (p. 32)

In 2015, al Qaeda will likely attempt to rebuild its support networks and planning capabilities with the intention of reconstituting its strike capabilities against Western interests. It likely believes that the recent reduction in coalition force presence in Afghanistan is a precursor to reduced regional counterterrorism operations against the group, which would allow it to regenerate some of its lost capabilities. The ANDSF will require continued assistance and support to conduct operations against members of al Qaeda. It will be critical that, in coordination with Afghan partners, our comprehensive counterterrorism efforts continue to apply pressure against al Qaeda in order to prevent its regeneration. Future U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan will be affected by the threats and requirements in Afghanistan and around the world. (p. 32)

RS leaders will continue to monitor the potential threat of ISIL establishing a credible presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan administration is particularly concerned about the potential rise of ISIL, which they see as a serious looming threat in the region as part of what President Ghani has referred to as the “ecology of terror.” ISIL represents a competitor with other groups that have traditionally operated in Afghanistan, which may result in increased violence between the various extremist groups. (p. 32)

Reports of Growing Taliban and Other Insurgent Combat Activity and Civilian Casualties

The DoD report did mention that the insurgents had already steadily increased the number of casualties in the fighting and had done so before most U.S. and allied combat forces had left at the end of 2014:

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 10,548 civilian casualties in 2014, the highest on record in a single year with a particular increase in casualties among women and children. UNAMA attributed this increase in overall civilian casualties to more frequent and larger ground engagements between the ANDSF and insurgents in populated areas. In the first three months of 2015, civilian casualties from ground engagements rose by eight percent compared to the same period in 2014. (p. 30)

What it did not discuss was the Taliban’s ability to take control of significant areas of drug cultivation in Helmand and other parts of Afghanistan and the steady spread of the fighting to include new areas. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issue a series of regular reports on the patterns of casualties in the fighting and Afghanistan: Annual Report 2014: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict reflected a major increase in Taliban and other insurgent activity.

The intensification of conflict-related violence in Afghanistan took an extreme toll on civilians in 2014, with civilian loss of life and injury reaching unprecedented levels. UNAMA documented 10,548 civilian casualties (3,699 deaths and 6,849 injured), marking a 25 per cent increase in civilian deaths, a 21 per cent increase in injuries for an overall increase of 22 per cent in civilian casualties compared to 2013.2 In 2014, UNAMA documented the highest number of civilian deaths and injuries in a single year since it began systematically recording civilian casualties in 2009… Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2014, UNAMA has documented 47,745 civilian casualties (17,774 killed and 29,971 injured). (p. 1)

The UN report also showed there was a sharp increase in the fighting and Taliban and other insurgent influence in new areas:

As the withdrawal of international military forces and combat air support continued in 2014, UNAMA observed more frequent and larger ground operations by both Afghan national security forces and Anti-Government Elements notably in Helmand, Kunar and Faryab provinces with fighting often occurring near district centres. (p. 4)


…The full transfer of security responsibility from international military forces to Afghan national security forces in 2014 significantly impacted civilian protection throughout Afghanistan. The drawdown of international military forces, in particular the reduction of combat air support to Afghan forces? ground troops, provided the Taliban and other anti-Government armed groups with more opportunities to launch large-scale ground operations in some areas. (p. 11)

In several areas, the Taliban carried out operations involving groups of several hundred Taliban fighters in an apparent effort to take and hold large areas of territory which were previously—at least nominally—under Government control, most notably in Helmand province. The response of Afghan security forces often appeared reactive with periodic operations launched against insurgents from Afghan forces? bases located in or near larger population centers. Outside the relatively secure urban areas, in many districts, particularly in the south, southeast and east regions of the country, the presence of Afghan security forces and the Government was limited to the district center, often leaving large groups of civilians without protection. (p. 11)

In addition, increased ground operations led by Afghan forces heightened their exposure and increased opportunities for Anti-Government Elements to attack them. The ensuing fire fights and ground engagements often resulted in deaths and injuries to civilians—particularly women and children—caught in the crossfire. (p. 11)

The proliferation and expanded power of a range of armed groups in 2014—often aligned with provincial and district Government authorities—particularly in the north, northeast and southeast regions was of increasing concern. UNAMA observed an increase in human rights abuses committed against civilians by Pro-Government armed groups which the Government has not addressed. This impunity—and lack of accountability—contributed to rising insecurity in some parts of the country and decreased protection for civilians. (p. 11)

UNAMA highlights that the security and political environment in the early months of 2015 suggests that Afghan security forces and the Taliban are determined to make the 2015 fighting season a turning point in the conflict. If the current trend of more frequent and larger ground engagements between large numbers of Afghan security forces and Anti-Government Elements continues, including indiscriminate shelling and the use of mortars, RPGs, IEDs and other weapons in civilian-populated areas, it is highly likely that civilian casualties will continue to rise in 2015. (p. 11)

The situation did not improve in the first six months of 2015. The UN reported in April 2015 that,

In the first three months of 2015, civilian casualties from ground engagements rose by eight per cent compared to the same period last year, according to the latest figures released today by the United Nations with warning that the toll is likely to rise in the coming summer months.


The numbers were released today by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which found that ground fighting between Pro-Government Forces and Anti-Government Elements caused 521 civilian casualties—that is 136 civilians killed and 385 injured. Most of the casualties are caused by 'Anti-Government Elements' (73 per cent), with 'Pro-Government Forces' responsible for just under a quarter (14 per cent).

The UN has not published its semiannual report on casualties for the first six months of 2015. A report in Stars and Stripes on July 9, however, stated that the UN documented 4,853 civilian casualties, including 1,564 deaths and 3,289 injuries, in the first six months of 2014. This would be a 24% increase compared to the same period for 2014, and other sources indicate there has been a major increase in Afghan military, police, and local police casualties as well—one that some senior U.S. officers believe is unsustainable.

Reports of a Major Expansion in Taliban and Other Insurgent Combat Activity and Influence in Given Parts of Afghanistan

The UN also reported a major increase in civilian casualties in new areas in 2014—correcting a critical limitation in the public reports issued by the U.S. government and one that has consistently called key aspects of its credibility into question:

In 2014, UNAMA documented increased civilian casualties from ground engagements in every region of Afghanistan. The majority took place in the southern region with 925 civilian casualties (352 deaths and 573 injured), followed by the eastern region with 770 civilian casualties (164 deaths and 606 injured), and the northern region with 435 civilian casualties (151 deaths and 284 injured). (p. 30)


UNAMA recorded the highest number of civilian casualties due to ground engagements in Helmand province, with 740 civilian casualties (282 deaths and 458 injured), followed by Kunar province with 340 civilian casualties (56 deaths and 284 injured), and then Faryab province with 315 civilian casualties (118 deaths and 197 injured). (p. 30)

The key UN data in terms of the increases in Taliban and other insurgent activities in given areas were shown in a chart that the UN text did not discuss. (p. 31). This chart showed the following increases in the number of ground engagements:

  • From 139 in 2009 in the Central Region to 325 in 2012 and 415 in 2014.

  • From 430 in 2009 in the East to 507 in 2012 and 770 in 2014.

  • From 68 in 2009 in the Northeast and 56 in 2012 to 353 in 2014.

  • From 100 in 2009 in the North and 60 in 2011 to 435 in 2014.

  • From 289 in 2009 in the Southeast to 348 in 2012 and 413 in 2014.

  • From 375 in 2009 in the Southeast to 127 in 2012 and 925 in 2014.

  • From 28 in 2009 in the Southeast to 85 in 2012 and 276 in 2014.

Like almost all of the other metrics on the fighting, it was clear at the end of 2014—when U.S. and allied combat forces left Afghanistan—that ISAF had not brought any kind of stability to the country and that the surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan early in the Obama administration had never provided anything like the benefits of the surge in Iraq and had had not had even minimal lasting impact.

The UN also has not updated its breakout of the increases in attacks and casualties by region in 2015. However, it is all clear from press reports that the Taliban has made further gains in Helmand, as well as in the north and made at least some increases in its presence in the areas around Kabul and Kandahar. The New York Times also reported on July 28, 2015, that insurgents had seized territory across three provinces in northern Afghanistan just during late July—including areas in Sar-i-Pul Province, Badakhshan Province, and Kunduz city and province.

The Fighting and the Uncertain Progress of the Afghan Military

It is equally important to put the progress of the Taliban and insurgents into the context of the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan government national security forces. The DoD Report on Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan issued in June 2015 provides major insights into these developments, It showed both real progress and that the Afghan forces were not yet ready to succeed on their own, still had major limits and weaknesses, and that—once again—any meaningful assessment of the Taliban and insurgents.

It also showed, however, that it was impossible to put its analysis into a proper perspective without some of a net assessment of both the insurgents and Afghan government force and do so at the local level. No U.S., NATO, or allied government report has ever done this at any public level, and it reflects a critical failure in learning the lesson of counterinsurgency and provide reporting with real meaning and integrity.

The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has also, provided an update of U.S. official reporting from a different source. This report is entitled SIGAR: Quarterly Report to the U.S Congress, and was issued on July 30, 2015.

The new SIGAR reporting updated the assessment of the severe limits to the quality of Afghan unity and governance. Its sections on the Afghan government security forces reflect an ongoing progress of improvement in some areas, but also show they are not yet making the level of improvement necessary to counter the insurgents.

It highlighted the lack of effective military leadership within the Afghan government for well over a year and that some aspects of the Afghan forces had actually declined in military capability:

At the end of the quarter, MOD remained without a confirmed minister. On July 4, 2015, the Afghan parliament rejected President Ghani’s third nominee for minister of defense, Masoom Stanekzai, who had been serving in an acting capacity since May. The second nominee for minister of defense withdrew his nomination on April 8, 2015, before the parliament scheduled the vote. Ghani had nominated General Mohammad Afzal Ludin, a military advisor in the National Security Council, on April 6. However, General Ludin said he did not wish his nomination to prove divisive for the country. Earlier, Afghan parliamentarians rejected Ghani’s nomination of then-acting Defense Minister General Sher Mohammad Karimi to lead the country’s military forces in January. The MOD has been without a confirmed minister since September 29, 2014, when Ghani was sworn in as president. (p. 97)


…This quarter the ANDSF was assessed as less capable than last quarter under the new Monthly ANDSF Assessment Report (MAAR). The first MAAR, conducted in January 2015, assessed 21 ANDSF components from the ANA, Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP), and Afghan Border Police (ABP) in six functional categories and seven Operations Coordination Centers–Regional (OCC-Rs) in seven functional categories for a total of 175 component category ratings. SIGAR analysis of the January MAAR determined that 93% of those component categories were rated “capable,” “fully capable,” or “sustaining”—the highest three of five rating levels, in ascending order.156 However, the breakdown by rating level showed that only a handful had achieved the highest rating. Of the 175 component categories assessed: (p. 99)

  • 7 were “sustaining” (4%)
  • 50 were “fully capable” (29%)
  • 106 were “capable” (61%)
  • 11 were “partially capable” (6%)
  • 0 were “in development” (0%)
  • 1 was not assessed (less than 0.6%)

This quarter, USFOR-A reported the April 2015 MAAR was expanded to include the Afghan Air Force (AAF), which increased the total number of component categories to 181 (22 ANDSF components from the ANA, AUP, and ABP in six functional categories and seven OCC-Rs in seven functional categories). This quarter, SIGAR analysis of the April 2015 MAAR determined that 83% component categories were rated as “capable,” “fully capable,” or “sustaining.”157 Fewer component categories assessed in the April 2015 MAAR had achieved the highest rating levels than in the January 2015 MAAR, although more component categories were not rated in the April 2015 MAAR, which could partly account for the decrease. (p. 100)

USFOR-A reports the decrease in capability ratings are largely attributable to the stresses imposed on ANDSF units at the beginning of the 2015 fighting season, in particular with command and control and the coordination of joint-force operations. DOD also cited fighting-season stresses, noted that Afghans now have the lead in combat operations, and questioned whether, given the recent addition of the AAF to the MAAR, an overall capability decrease had actually occurred. (p. 100)

Other key conclusions that illustrate the need to assess the Taliban and other insurgents in net assessment context include:

  • Since 2002, Congress has appropriated nearly $109.66 billion for Afghanistan reconstruction, and of that amount $11.9 billion remains to be spent. (p. 77) The U.S. has provided $8.2 billion for counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, and the country is the global leader in illicit opium cultivation and production. (p. 122)
  • Section 1 of looks at how placing conditions on international assistance to Afghanistan can help achieve its purposes of thwarting corruption, making the country capable of standing on its own, and providing accountability for donor nation funds. (p. ii)
  • In 2013, DOD placed “no conditions” on U.S. funds used to support the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior; in 2015, the two ministries are subject to 93 conditions. (p. 3)
  • DOD noted that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) have over 360 excess facilities that are costing the U.S. money for lights, heat, and repairs. DOD is now giving the Afghans a choice, donate, sell, or demolish excess facilities or lose aid. (p. 16)
  • This quarter, ANDSF assigned force strength was 331,944, which reflects an increase of 3,139 since February 2015. Details of ANDSF force strength at corps level and below remained classified. (p. 98)
  • This quarter the ANDSF was assessed as less capable than last quarter under the new DOD assessment report, and the Resolute Support Mission lowered the capacity levels the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior are expected to achieve by the end 2016. (pp. 99 & 103)
  • The ANDSF has experienced higher casualty rates since the Taliban’s spring offensive began; May 2015 casualties were 33% higher than in the previous month. (p. 96)
  • DOD officials acknowledged that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant had spread into Afghanistan, although they added that the group was “nascent and relatively small." (page 96)
  • $157.4 million in U.S.-purchased equipment for the Afghan National Army (ANA), was not transferred to the ANA and has been scrapped. (p.110)
  • Domestic revenues paid for less than half (48%) or $576 million of Afghanistan’s total budget expenditures of $1.2 billion so far, with donor contributions making up the difference. (p. 165)

Moreover, the SIGAR reporting also provided an update on the Taliban and other insurgent forces, and did highlight the expansion of insurgent activity and influence:

Conflict-related violence increased in Afghanistan as the ANDSF sought to contain insurgent activity whose intensification resulted in record-high levels of civilian casualties, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). For example, the UN reported a 45% increase in armed clashes the week after the start of the Taliban spring offensive on April 24, 2015, and a 23% increase in civilian casualties over the same period in 2014.99 According to the UN, more than 10,000 civilians were killed or injured during 2014, as compared to 8,615 in 2013, and a UNAMA representative predicted an increase in civilian casualties this year in Afghanistan.


On April 24, the Taliban launched its first spring offensive since the NATO combat mission ended in December 2014.115 Afghan security forces are being spread increasingly thin as they respond to security threats throughout the country.116 The ANDSF has experienced higher casualty rates since the Taliban’s spring offensive began; May 2015 casualties were 33% higher than in the previous month.117 The MOD reported in June that 40 to 50 districts throughout Afghanistan are facing security threats, noting that most insurgents are based in areas with a limited ANDSF presence.

The MOD added that they had ongoing counterinsurgency operations in 14 of 34 provinces. Local media reported that in the first six months of 2015, insurgents carried out attacks in larger groups of fighters, resulting in the capture of several districts.119 In its spring offensive, the Taliban has been attacking Afghan police and soldiers at security posts in provinces including Paktiya, Badakhshan, Kandahar, and Helmand.120 Insurgents demonstrated the continued ability to launch high-profile attacks in Kabul, but the ANDSF was able to respond to these incidents.

…This quarter, DOD and RS officials acknowledged that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had spread into Afghanistan, although they added that the group was “nascent and relatively small.”126 The acknowledgement came after a NATO drone strike in Helmand killed a former Taliban member and released Guantanamo Bay detainee, Abdul Rauf, who had become an ISIL leader and recruiter in Afghanistan. The Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) also announced the drone-strike killing of Mawlavi Shahidullah Shahid, an ISIL commander, on July 7, 2015, along with two of his deputies and five others. Shahid, a former Pakistani Taliban spokesman who was sacked after claiming allegiance to ISIL, was the second most senior

ISIL commander in Afghanistan killed in a week and the third over the past few months. Four days later, the NDS announced the drone-strike killing of Hafez Saeed, who they described as the leader of ISIL in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Saeed, also a former Pakistani Taliban who had switched allegiance to ISIL, was killed in Nangarhar.

Peace Negotiations as an Extension of War by Other Means

It is far too soon to make any negative judgments about the prospects for peace negotiations if they continue or resume at a later date. It is equally premature, however, to make any positive judgments. Even if one ignores the uncertainties relating to the unity of both the insurgents and Afghan government, and the role of key outside powers like Pakistan, the fact talks occur has never historically been an indicator of either ultimate success or failure. Dialogue is only dialogue. It is the seriousness of the negotiations that follow and their outcome that count.

This seriousness is not simply challenge by the uncertainties in the Taliban position. Many supporters of the Afghan government also do not support such talks, and it could be as hard for the faction on the government side to agree to any actual settlement as the factions in the insurgency. Pakistan’s role is also uncertain, and some Afghans see Pakistan as still committed to trying to dominate Afghanistan and use the negotiation to its own ends.

And, it is important to understand that even if the Taliban do return to such talks, negotiations give the Taliban an international status and degree of respectability it would not otherwise have and the potential ability to exploit differences within the Afghan political structure and government and to undercut the morale and motivation of the Afghan security forces. It is equally true that they give the Afghan government some of the same advantages, but this illustrates a fact that some who hope for peace tend to ignore.

Peace negotiations scarcely have to become a zero sum game where one or more sides plays ruthlessly to “win” either in exploiting the fact talks occur or their outcome. As cases like Nepal and Cambodia show, they can also be used by insurgents to win a war by other means, and as other cases like the negotiations between the KMT and Chinese Communists show, they may be totally vitiated or bypassed by military success on the part of the insurgents.

The key point in Afghanistan at this point in time is that the insurgents have at least as much reason to believe they can win on the battlefield as to negotiate. It is far from clear that the public announcement of Omar’s death will change this situation.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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