A NATO report describes a 37 percent surge in Taliban attacks over the last year, emboldened by the agreement with the United States.
The Taliban has ramped up attacks in the first quarter of the year and has maintained ties with Al Qaeda, as US and NATO troops begin to withdraw from the country after 20 years, according to Pentagon’s internal watchdog.
In the report published on Tuesday, the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General found that attacks on Afghan security forces by the Taliban armed group, since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement, surged 37 percent over the January-March period from a year earlier.
Citing Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the inspector general said the Taliban attacks in the first and second quarter of 2021 remained above “historical averages, with 11,551 reported this quarter (3,677 effective) and 10,431 last quarter (3,460 effective)”.
The armed group is also likely to conduct large-scale attacks on provincial capitals and are striving to control highways, citing analysis from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) the report said.
“From 2020 to February 2021, Taliban fighters strived to control highways, limit the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ (ANDSF) ability to resupply its forces, and isolate Afghan government forces at outposts and checkpoints,” read the report.
Afghan analyst Enayat Najafizada said the country is heading towards a “tough” summer fight between the Afghan government and the Taliban armed group.
“The summer battle will make or break the Afghan peace process and the country’s future,” Najafizada, the co-founder and CEO of the Institute of War and Peace Studies, said.
“The fight is already ongoing in 28 provinces of the country with unprecedented death toll on the ANDSF - in some days more than 100 soldiers in 24 hours,” he said adding that the fight is a test for the ANDSF to prove they can hold their ground without the support from US-led NATO forces.
The report also said that Al Qaeda still continues to rely on the Taliban for protection “and the two groups have reinforced ties over the past decades, likely making it difficult for an organizational split to occur”.
It added that the Taliban continues to assassinate government employees, security officials and journalists this quarter “with the goal of weakening ANDSF morale and undermining public trust in the government”.
A protracted threat
Last month, US President Joe Biden announced the decision to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American forces would be complete by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, delaying a May 1 deadline agreement reached in February 2020 by the previous Donald Trump administration and the Taliban.
In response, the Taliban threatened to resume hostilities against coalition forces if they did not withdraw.
The report, citing DIA, suggested that the threats were credible and the Taliban are likely to respond with indirect fire, suicide bombing, vehicle-borne IED or improvised explosive devices attacks.
After a long delay in peace talks, the Taliban and the Afghan government negotiators met in Qatar on the second day of the three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban for Eid al Fitr last week.
The talks began last year in September to find a solution to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan but were stalled resulting in escalation of violence in the country.
The Taliban refused to attend a US-backed conference in Istanbul, Turkey leading it to be indefinitely postponed.
“Afghanistan risks going towards a protracted civil war because the warring parties have different positions from each other at the talks,” Torek Farhadi, an Afghan senior analyst, said.
The disagreement and distrust between the two sides is apparent as the fighting on ground continues. The Afghan government blames the Taliban for target killings and attacks on civilians in the country as it seeks to delegitimise the Taliban as “terrorists”.
The Taliban say the Kabul government is not serious about making progress in talks.
“The US still believes that the Afghan government and the Taliban will make peace. In reality, the US exit has emboldened Taliban to win the war through carnage. It puts the civilians in the line of fire and the fragile Afghan government on the defensive,” he added.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, disagreed with the predictions that the Taliban will take over Kabul and overrun Afghan forces at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
"I personally believe the predictions that the Afghan forces will collapse right away, they're not right," said Khalilzad, who led the negotiations for the February 2020 agreement with the Taliban.
He reiterated financial support for Afghan security forces saying “We are helping them now. We will help them. This is our commitment”.
The exit of US forces, however, has only exacerbated fears among Afghans, especially women who are trying to defend gains they have made over the last 20 years. They believe the country could plunge into a civil war that could bring the armed group back to power.
The Taliban under their 1996-2001 rule imposed a harsh version of the Islamic rule that saw girls being banned from going to school and women from working outside their homes.
The Taliban leaders have said that their views on women’s rights have evolved since they were in power and that women could “serve their society in the education, business, health and social fields while maintaining correct Islamic Hijab”.