A recent surge in attacks in the Afghan capital is raising concerns that the new boss of a divided Taliban is lashing out to show who is in control – as well as new worries about growing divisions in the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
Truck bombings and other attacks since Friday have left at least 55 people dead. Amid the rubble and chaos is also the silver-lining claim that Afghanistan’s US- and NATO-trained security forces are demonstrating a heightened ability to respond to such attacks and mitigate their impact.
The praise some Afghan officers heaped on their forces’ performance in the wake of the recent attacks is echoed to some degree by US commanders on the ground, some regional experts say. For others, the praise is more, than anything, an attempt to put a positive twist on a picture of surging violence.
“The Afghan security forces have suffered record levels of casualties and they continue to be beset by high attrition rates, but in the face of these challenges US commanders say they are impressed with the competence and professionalism of the Afghan forces,” says Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington.
“In the midst of a major Taliban offensive, they’ve shown themselves to be able to hold ground and defense positions,” she says.
For others, any high marks for the security forces’ performance are more accurately an attempt by authorities to deflect attention from faltering security.
“The government in Kabul is trying to put the best face possible on the performance of the security forces,” says Ted Galen Carpenter, senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. “But the fact is that, while that performance has been tolerably competent, it’s hardly been impressive.”
Some Afghan commanders issued kudos for their soldiers and national police over the weekend after Taliban attackers were repelled and prevented from entering the military facilities that appeared to be their targets. The result was that in the Friday attacks, which claimed at least 50 lives, the large majority of victims were either security forces defending the targeted installation or civilians living or traveling nearby.
One American soldier, a Green Beret, was killed in Friday’s attacks.
On Monday, a bombing near the civilian entrance to Kabul’s airport, apparently targeting a passing convoy of US and other foreign personnel, killed at least five people – four civilians and a police officer.
One point analysts appear to agree on is that, despite the rising challenges Afghanistan’s security forces are facing, one thing is certain: They are faring much better than Iraq’s US-trained soldiers and police officers.
“One thing that can be said with a high degree of confidence is that [the Afghan forces] have shown more of a competence and cohesion than their Iraqi counterparts,” says Ms. Curtis. She notes that, despite some ethnic divisions, the Afghans do not face the stark sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis that the Iraqis are dealing with.
“Certainly you don’t have [in Afghanistan] the debacle of Iraq, with the military fleeing before adversaries of inferior numbers,” says Mr. Carpenter. “But that doesn’t mean what we’ve seen from the Afghans has been an overwhelmingly competent response, either.”
In any case, the spate of four attacks in four days has little to do with pushing back government forces, Heritage’s Curtis says, and everything to do with coalescing support for the Taliban’s new leadership in the wake of the recently confirmed death of longtime leader Mullah Omar.
The weekend wave of attacks follows by about a week Taliban confirmation of the death two years ago of Omar, who led the Afghan Taliban from hiding in Pakistan after the US expelled the Taliban government from Kabul in 2001. Mullah Akhtar’s rise to the leadership position set off infighting between his supporters and detractors that experts say explains the recent attacks.
“This intensified campaign [of attacks] is really aimed at rallying the troops behind Akhtar Mansour and closing ranks around his leadership,” Curtis says. “They figure the best way to do that is to emphasize his ability to pull off these attacks and demonstrate his authority.”
But that does not mean the doubts about Akhtar’s anointment are settled, she adds – which may well portend more violence to come, and little prospect of getting back to peace talks any time soon.
“We should expect more offenses, more attacks from the Taliban as this leadership question continues to be sorted out,” Curtis says. “I don’t see this settling down quickly.”
Cato’s Carpenter agrees that surges in violence will likely roil Afghanistan over the coming months. But he worries that a divided and ineffective government in Kabul that loses the public’s faith in the face of increased Taliban attacks will add to growing ethnic divisions – and that the two together could imperil national cohesion.
“Afghanistan has always been an uneasy collection of tribes and ethnic groups, its national unity fragile at best,” he says.
“What we’re seeing now in many respects is a reverting to what the country was in the early 1990s, when instability reigned as various forces jockeyed for power. I think that means,” he adds, “we’re likely to see sporadic surges of violence in the coming months.”
[Editor's note: The subhead for this story was revised to accurately describe the security forces in Iraq.]