Afghanistan: The Calm Before the Storm
An Afghan National Army commando patrols through a poppy field during a clearing operation in the Khogyani district, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, May 9, 2013.

Afghanistan: The Calm Before the Storm

 
 

The Afghan Government’s position on direct peace negotiations with the Taliban through the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), involving senior officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States and China, changed after the group staged a deadly bomb attack and assault on April 19, which killed 64 people and wounded 347 others in Kabul. A week after the attack, President Ashraf Ghani, in his speech to the Afghan parliament, announced new security policies to take a harsh stand against Pakistan, the Haqqani network, Daesh (ISIS), and the Taliban.

“We don’t expect Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table,” Ghani said. “What we want is for Pakistan … to keep its promises and launch military operations against insurgents.”

With the end of NATO’s combat mission, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) took responsibility for security across the country in December 2014. Since coming to office, Ghani told parliament, he has tried to us “all our resources… to put an end to violence through peaceful manners,” but like his predecessor, he couldn’t achieve any breakthrough. In fact, last year was the deadliest year in recent memory Afghanistan, with civilian causalities hitting a record of 11,000. Taliban briefly took control of Kunduz, and they also advanced in other provinces especially in southern, northeastern, and western Afghanistan.

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Ghani’s April speech marked the first time that the Afghan government has publicly announced its hardening stance against the anti-government insurgent groups who are not willing to end the bloodshed through peaceful means and continue to fight against the Afghan government. But since Ghani’s address to the Afghan parliament, the ANSF hasn’t undertaken offensive operations against the insurgent groups, especially in Helmand, Kunduz, and Badakhshan.

Over the last five months, Helmand’s northern districts started to fall into the Taliban’s control one by one – starting from Musa Qala and Nawzad in February 2016, then most parts of Sangin and Grishk, then Marjah, and most recently the southern district of Khanashin. Though the ANSF managed to re-capture Khanashin district, it is still struggling to clear the provincial capital, Lashkergah. The Taliban have managed to control far more parts of Helmand than the Afghan government.

Despite the fact that Taliban have launched their so-called spring offensive, the security situation in Helmand has been very calm in the past two months. There hasn’t been any major attack by them, nor has any new district fallen under their control. The secret behind the lull is that the Taliban are busy collecting the multifold profits from this year’s opium harvest, while (unlike other years) the governor-led opium eradication campaign has yet to begin.

The Taliban’s most lucrative source of income, used to finance their operation against the Afghan government, mainly depends on the opium harvest. Taliban collect ushr (the Islamic tax on harvest) from the farmers; they collect another form of tax for allowing poppy cultivation and protecting poppy fields from the government’s eradication campaign; and yet another tax called zakat from the annual profit of the poppy harvest earned by farmers and land owners. Other source of income include ensuring the transportation and smuggling routes of the opium dealers and smugglers are kept open.

The opium yield this year has increased compared to last year, yet the government left the opium harvest untouched. Considering the vitality of opium production, Taliban also took care not to provoke the government by halting their advances and attacks on government forces, hence allowing the militants the best chance to complete the harvest, collect taxes, and prepare for the summer offensive.

According to local villagers, almost 98 percent of Taliban insurgent fighters took part in nesh, a term used to describe the lancing of opium capsules and collecting the opium gum. This is labor-intensive and skilled work, but seasonal laborers come from almost all over Afghanistan to help. As per the local customs, those who work in lancing the opium bulbs and collecting the gum get one-third of the total harvest.

According to Haji Toor Jan, a local farmer in Nawzad district, “Different Taliban groups not only collected a huge amount of financial income from poppy taxation, but also received large amounts of money through their fighters’ wages for lancing and gum collection this year.”

Since the Taliban were busy with the opium harvest and tax collection, the ANSF could have taken the opportunity to launch an offensive to recapture the districts in northern Helmand, not only targeting the insurgents but also their lucrative financial resources. On the contrary, the ANSF has been in a defensive position, waiting in their bunkers in most of areas. In a strategic move, the ANSF re-captured Khanashin district, which had been lost to Taliban a few weeks earlier. But there hasn’t been any advance in the three northern districts where the Taliban have established their administrative units and are in full control. The government also didn’t take any initiative to regain the central Marjah district, parts of Nad Ali district, and western Babaji village of Lashkergah city, which still remain under Taliban control. Instead, both the government and the Taliban have been engaged in preparing for the summer offensive.

The Afghan government not only receives military support from its strategic allies the United States and NATO, but also has received military assistance from Russia and India. Despite this aid, the ANSF failed to launch an offensive against the Taliban in Helmand and other provinces at the most crucial time, creating ideal circumstances for the Taliban insurgents to secure the necessary financial support to buy arms and ammunition and otherwise prepare for another bloody year in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has already lost their best chance of hitting their enemy at a very critical time, though the ANSF claims that they have been preparing for the assault and are prepared to defend their positions. Considering the bulk of money collected by the Taliban from the opium harvest and the number of fresh recruits, the next few months might witness fresh Taliban offensives and attacks on government controlled territories. Hence, in order to minimize the effects of upcoming Taliban attacks, the Afghan government needs to think out of the box and start a fresh offensive aimed at hitting the Taliban in their backyard while they are busy preparing their future combat plans.

It might also be an appropriate time for the Afghan Government to consider starting night raids targeting the Taliban leaders and their financial resources. The ANSF has to take serious action and target the Taliban’s financial brokers, smugglers, and the opium collected from the farmers as part of the new offensive in order to weaken them financially. If the ANSF continues to wait in their outposts for upcoming Taliban attacks, rather than stepping out and taking the offensive, the Kunduz scenario might be repeated in Helmand, but a worse — and deadlier — aftermath.

Naqeebullah Miakhel is an Afghan researcher based in Helmand with a Masters degree from OSCE Academy, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Najibullah Noorzai is an Afghan researcher with a Masters degree in Law and Politics of International Security from VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He worked with the European Union and the United Nations agencies in the areas of rule of law, justice, counter narcotics, and anti-corruption in Afghanistan.

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