Melting Snow Means More Death in Afghanistan
The Fighting Season, Part I
Every winter, far from the conveniences of the modern world, snow falls heavily in places along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the mountain passes between the two countries become impassable. Fighting slows. The beauty of rural Afghanistan becomes less marred by the sounds of war. The Taliban seems to shrink back into the unreachable tribal lands of Pakistan. Farmers plant poppy and wait for the spring harvest close to the warm fires of home.
This lull in fighting is in part due to a near-stop of fighters coming into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Even though the snow does not hinder all of the Durand Line that separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, fighting still slows. Each spring, as the snow melts off the mountain passes and the madrasas of neighboring Pakistan go on break, the Taliban announces their fighting season. Last year, it was Azem, or “to persevere.” The year before, Khaibar, referring to the famous Battle of Khaibar in 628 CE when Muslim troops defeated strongly fortified Jewish and Arab tribes.
Last year was the first time that Afghan forces faced the fighting season alone, as ISAF forces became mostly “assist and advise.” Only one of the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 104 units was classified as battle-ready, and mobilized into fighting. Thirty-eight of those 104 units were classified as exhibiting massive problems. Afghan forces took 60 percent more casualties than the year before. The ANA alone took a 42 percent increase in casualties; this amounts to almost 22 casualties a day for 2015. Overall, including a higher-than-usual rate of defection to the Taliban, the ANA lost almost a third of its forces in 2015.
This, however, could be an optimistically misleading percentage. Officials estimate that up to 40 percent of security forces could be “ghost soldiers” — soldiers that have either died and their salaries are pocketed by public officials or soldiers who receive a paycheck but no longer participate in security activities. Overall, it seems that the high levels of both casualties as well as defections, compounded by the ghost soldier phenomenon, have left Afghan forces severely disabled in the fight for their country.
Overall, it seems that the high levels of both casualties as well as defections, compounded by the ghost soldier phenomenon, have left Afghan forces severely disabled in the fight for their country
The Taliban has found some new muscle in the fight for control of Afghanistan. Even as it seems to become more divided with the death of leader Mullah Omar and the Islamic State (IS) moving into Afghan territory, the Taliban’s fighting strength has not been significantly degraded. With the withdrawal of ISAF forces from a fighting capacity, so too goes American air power. The threat of air attacks can be a strong deterrent to violence, but with only 411 close air support (CAS) missions flown in 2015, that threat was largely gone (this compares to over 9,000 hits in Iraq against ISIS).
The Taliban seems to be morphing its insurgency into a more conventional war-fighting body, shedding in part the legacy of the fighting season. This year has seen Afghanistan become a more dangerous place than last. The Taliban now controls more territory than any time since 2001, and these gains came during the off-season. They have made significant gains in northern, southern and eastern Afghanistan, threatening the capitals of provinces and districts while establishing quasi-government structures along the way. In Helmand, one of the most vulnerable provinces, the Taliban controls ten out of 14 districts.
The Taliban now controls more territory than any time since 2001, and these gains came during the off-season
Much of the escalation of fighting from Taliban forces came after the July announcement of the 2013 death of Mullah Omar. Even with reports of internal strife and disagreement, the Taliban was able to aggressively and successfully wage violent opposition to President Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul. According to the Institute for the Study of War, “the ANSF lack the higher headquarters and mobility functions to conduct simultaneous or sequential campaigns to counter geographically dispersed threats” and NATO cannot fill this gap because of limited authority and resources.
The threat of insurgency has heightened without a forceful or effective response from Kabul, opening the door even wider to doubt and distrust in the fragile government from a population that continues to live in violence and uncertainty. As the fighting season approaches, the Taliban is already in the throws of the fight for the nation it once controlled but lost to a power that seems to have forgotten the war it still fights there. And as the snow melts, Afghanistan once again faces warmer months that bring the prospect of increased violence and death.