Taliban Devise New Strategy in Afghanistan: Territorial Control and War on Afghan Intelligence Headquarters
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 18
The Jamestown Foundation
On September 10, 2014, Kunduz province’s police chief, Ghulam Mustafa Mohseni, announced that a longtime Taliban stronghold, the Chahar Dara district of northern Afghanistan, had been cleared of insurgents. Mohseni added that the Taliban lost around 210 members in the operations (ToloNews, September 10). The large number of Taliban casualties in Kunduz is one of the many instances of the widening insurgency in Afghanistan. Militants increasingly have been able to carry out attacks with hundreds of people fighting Afghan government forces for days and weeks in order to gain territorial control over specific strategically located areas of Afghanistan.
Along with these major and well-coordinated battles in the field, insurgents are now being used as assets in a clearly drawn intelligence war targeting the Afghan security establishment, with a particular focus on the Afghan domestic intelligence agency. The latest of these attacks was conducted in early September with a group of 19 suicide attackers targeting the National Directorate of Security (NDS) provincial headquarters in Ghazni province. The attack, which lasted for a few hours, was highly sophisticated and brutal, killing and wounding around 180 civilians and security personnel (Daily Mail, September 4).
Large groups of Taliban fighters in combat and an intelligence war are the two main pillars of a strategic shift in the broader strategy of the Afghan insurgency. This shift demonstrates that the Afghan insurgency has changed dramatically in 2014, as the country is heading toward a transformed role for NATO forces left in Afghanistan coupled with a political transition that has been underway for the last five months. Success for various groups of insurgents operating under the Taliban’s banner could be a game changer and would allow the reemergence and reestablishment of a brutal regime in Afghanistan.
Struggle for Territorial Control
Since June, the Taliban have waged four major direct assaults in four Afghani provinces. The largest operation conducted so far has been in Helmand province. Reports suggest that 800 to 1,000 Taliban insurgents were involved in major assaults on the Sangin, Nawzad, Mua Qala and Kajaki districts (BBC, June 25). Fighting there continued for weeks until the Taliban were defeated and areas were cleared; around 100 militants were reportedly killed during the fighting. The Taliban then shifted their operations to northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province where they fought for weeks to take control of the Khan Abad, Chahar Dara and Dashte Archi districts. As a result, they lost tens of their people and fought the Afghan security forces for weeks (ToloNews, August 24). Eastern Nuristan was another target of the Taliban in late August. Afghan security forces waged an eight-day operation to regain control of the province’s Doa Ab district, killing around 30 Taliban (ToloNews, August 29). After being repulsed on three fronts, more than 1,000 insurgents then launched another operation in northwestern Farayab province in a struggle for territorial control of the Qaisar and Ghormach districts. The attacks continued for around a week and resulted in over 130 insurgent casualties (Pajhwok, August 18).
The deterioration of the security situation and a drawn-out, disputed political process have paved the way for the undertaking of a new strategy by the Taliban in Afghanistan. A senior security official in the Afghan government told Jamestown on the condition of anonymity that the Taliban’s efforts for major gains in territorial control is planned mainly for 2015 when the NATO-led ISAF forces will be fully withdrawn and a fragile and weakened Afghan state will have the burden of stabilizing Afghanistan alone. Due to the political instability that emerged during the long-time disputed elections and an uncertain NATO presence, however, the Taliban began implementing their new strategy in 2014, a strategy that the Afghan official termed as a defeated one. 
From the outset of the post-Taliban state in Afghanistan, there have been discussions of a proxy war that is underway in Afghanistan. Senior Afghan officials have always pointed fingers at Pakistan for supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan.  Pakistan and its foreign policy masters have continuously denied any involvement in the destabilization of Afghanistan. They have called on the Afghan leaders to stop their so-called “blame-game,” which Islamabad has always deemed destructive to bilateral relations.
A new chapter of the intelligence war has already begun in the form of the growing insurgency, which is directly targeting strategic national security institutions of Afghanistan, the most productive and critical tools in the broader counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency efforts of the country.
In a chronological view, 2012 was the outset of a number of selected attacks targeting the Afghan domestic intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS). On December 6, 2012, Asadullah Khaled, the then-head of the NDS, survived an assassination attempt though he was seriously injured in the attack. This was followed by the January 13, 2013 assault on the NDS headquarters in the heart of Kabul (al-Jazeera, December 7, 2012). Attacks on the NDS and the regional offices continue through today. More recently, on May 6, the Delaram district office of NDS came under attack by unknown insurgents. In Jalalabad, on August 30, a heavy and devastating assault was launched on the provincial office of NDS, a few kilometers away from the Khyber Pass on the eastern border (ToloNews, September 18). The latest attack occurred earlier this month in Ghazni province, in which more than 18 people were killed, around 150 were injured and several government buildings worth at least $85 million were destroyed (Daily Mail, September 4).
While it is not clear why the Taliban would be motivated enough to wage sophisticated and costly operations against a specific security establishment in Afghanistan, an in-depth look into the last two years of the blame game could yield a better understanding. The Taliban have claimed responsibility for all of these attacks, but on various occasions the Afghan government has blamed Pakistan instead for targeting Kabul.  Recently, Islamabad blamed the Afghan NDS of plotting the June 8 attack on the Karachi airport. However, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for that attack, which lasted several hours (Guardian, July 9). Soon after this accusation by Islamabad, on July 2, the Kabul airport was hit by two rockets, which destroyed a military facility and a number of helicopters. This attack was followed by one on July 17, in which five suicide attackers captured a nearby building in order to then attack the Kabul airport. Soon after the second attack, the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI) blamed the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. A MoI spokesman stressed that the attack on the Kabul airport was plotted to avenge the coordinated attack on the airport in Karachi (Khaama Press, July 17).
Moreover, the serial targeting of NDS offices in various provinces of Afghanistan became a main pillar of the current insurgent strategy after Pakistani authorities accused the current acting director of the NDS, Rahmatullah Nabil, of having a hand in the Karachi airport attack in mid-June. The Afghan government denied any involvement (ToloNews, June 22).
While no documents have been presented to uncover the role of the NDS behind the alleged plots against Pakistan, a recent public statement from outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai clearly states why, from his perspective, Islamabad is supporting instability in Afghanistan. In return for stability and an end to the Afghan insurgency, Pakistan wanted the Durand Line resolved as well as sole control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and international relations, demands that Karzai has never accepted. 
Many in Kabul believe that the nearly continuous attacks on the security establishment of Afghanistan have become a key pillar of the Taliban’s new strategy. If true, a settlement of the Afghan insurgency and peacefully ending the current instability in Afghanistan may be an impossible goal.
The Taliban insurgency’s new approach features large attacks across the country designed to seize and maintain control of territory as well as the specific targeting of intelligence branches. These two methods are tactically and strategically threatening the future of a functional and stable Afghan state. At the same time, Afghans are experiencing the end of the NATO-led ISAF mission. In spite of the difficult security transition taking place and the uncertain political transition, in 2014, Afghan security forces have responded enormously well to the new tactical and strategic shifts of the insurgency even in the most volatile southern regions of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it is feared that the “resolute mission” of international forces in Afghanistan will not be enough to sufficiently curb terrorism and the insurgency, which threatens to take control of even larger swaths of Afghan territory following the reduced role for U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan in 2015.
Waliullah Rahmani is a security and political affairs expert specializing in terrorism, insurgency, AfPak affairs and Islamic movements.
- Author’s discussion with a senior security official, September 10, 2014.
- Pakistan has been blamed for supporting the Afghan insurgency on various occasions. Most recently, Karzai Blamed Islamabad for blocking his government from striking a peace deal with the Taliban. For more, see http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/afghan-president-hamid-karzai-blames-pakistan-attacks-article-1.1739863. He also blamed Pakistan for an attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat province after two such attacks in seven years on the Indian Embassy in Kabul: see http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2014-05-28/news/50149429_1_indian-embassy-afghanistan-president-hamid-karzai-cross-border-terror. Afghan officials accused Pakistan of plotting an attack on an Afghan army outpost in Kunar: see http://dunyanews.tv/index.php/en/Pakistan/213330-Afghan-official-blames-Pakistan-for-deadly-attack-. Furthermore, for almost two years, Afghan security agencies have reported shelling from Pakistan in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Recently, the Afghan government has gone to a level of threatening Pakistan with full scale war if the shelling is not stopped. For more on this, see http://www.presstv.com/detail/2014/06/02/365213/kabul-ready-to-retaliate-pak-aggression/.
- Most recently, the Afghan government accused Pakistan of plotting an attack in Kabul against presidential frontrunner candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Dr. Abdullah survived the suicide attack assassination attempt. For more on this attack on Abdullah, an attack on Kabul’s IEC office and many more examples, see http://www.khaama.com/pakistan-based-lashkar-e-taiban-behind-attack-on-dr-abdullah-6195.
- Live broadcast of Afghan President departing speech for 100s of Afghan government officials and presidential staffers, Radio Television of Afghanistan (RTA), September 22, 2014.
Photo: Afghan soldier on patrol (Source: NATO Training Mission Afghanistan)