Analysis and comments

16.06.2021
115

ON THE SITUATION IN AFGHANISTAN

Last week, hostilities would not stop, and government forces lost control over a number of districts: according to sources, over the past two months, the Taliban captured 17 districts, eight of them captured just in the last week, and they are not going to stop. The government calls this a “tactical retreat” and a security strategy, but parliament has already criticized this approach.

According to media reports, the Taliban took control over regional centers in the provinces of Ghazni, Faryab, Baghlan, Maidan Wardak, Lagman, Gor, Uruzgan, Tokhar, Sari-Pul. The Taliban themselves claim that they have seized additionally some districts in Logar, Nuristan, Herat, Daykundi and Zabul provinces.

The Defense Ministry says the security forces are retreating to protect civilians who are being evacuated. The ministry spokesman explained that the security forces have their own strategy to suppress the enemy and take the territories back: “You will see this soon,” he said.

However, it is impossible to say with certainty that the Taliban will prevail these days: according to the Afghan military, the Taliban planned to seize at least one province completely during May, but they did not succeed.

At the same time, attacks happen daily.

Among the reasons why the Taliban so often take control of checkpoints and districts is not just corruption or weakness of the Afghan army, but also strong local tribal ties: local mediators, including the elders, are involved in negotiations between the Taliban and the national security forces about the surrender of checkpoints.

The loudest attack of the past week was the Baghlan massacre, which sparked serious international backlash.

On June 8, unidentified masked men entered the camp, where there were about 110 employees of the international demining organization HALO Trust, and, according to eyewitnesses, shot “in cold blood” 10 deminers who spent that day working in the nearby minefields. They also injured 16 more persons. A survivor said after the attack: “There were five or six armed men; they brought us to a room, took all our money and mobile phones, and asked if there were any Hazaras among us.” Then they opened fire on people.

Afghan authorities blamed the Taliban, but the Taliban refused to take responsibility. A spokesman for the movement said on Twitter: “We have normal relations with NGOs. Our mujahideen will never commit such brutal attacks.”

Indeed, after a while the “Islamic State” terrorist group claimed responsibility for the attack, and Halo Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC that the local Taliban even helped the company workers during the attack: “They came to our aid and scared off the attackers.” Cowan said the attackers fled to an area that was not under Taliban control.

Last week, a US interagency delegation led by US Special Representative for Afghanistan Khalilzad completed its visit to Kabul. The members of the delegation met with the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the head of the Supreme Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, the Lower House of the Parliament (Wolesi Jirga) Mir Rahman Rahmani and other high-ranking persons. Insiders said that the talks were not focused on the peace process, but rather on the relationship between Kabul and Washington after the withdrawal of troops. The American side assured Kabul that it will continue cooperation, primarily in the military and technical areas, and keep providing assistance, including financial aid.

Among the most important questions that are still unclear for the observers is who will serve the Afghan Air Force after the withdrawal of foreign troops. Earlier fears were expressed in Kabul that the Pentagon might stop doing this, and local contractors would leave the country, fearing for their own safety.

According to official statements, the US delegation has assured Kabul of continued financial support for the Afghan security forces, which will amount to 3.3 billion US dollars annually.

The New York Times reported last week that the Pentagon is exploring the possibility of air support for Afghan security forces in the event of a Taliban attack on major cities. Previously, the Biden administration planned to stop air support, according to journalists, but due to the general deterioration of the security situation, the possibility of military intervention and the use of aircraft and drones in the event of the fall of Kabul and the emergence of threats to American citizens and allies is being considered.

Last week, Russian media learned about Kabul's intention to resume military and technical cooperation with Russia.

According to a source in Kabul, the Afghan government has sent an official request to the Russian leadership to study the possibilities for restoring channels of technical assistance to the local armed forces. Kabul asked Moscow to help “repair helicopters and maintain artillery systems.” There is no response yet.

The maintenance of military air equipment, such as fighters, cargo planes, helicopters and drones in Afghanistan was also conducted by local contractors, who now request the United States and Western countries to help them safely leave the country. Those are about 18 thousand people who believe that they are in mortal danger in the event of the arrival of the Taliban.

In the past, Moscow actively cooperated with NATO in Afghanistan specifically in the field of helicopter repair: in 2011, a trust fund was created for the maintenance of helicopters of the Afghan army. Moscow helped repair, maintain, supply parts and train expert technicians, and on several occasions the Pentagon bought Russian Mi-17s for the Afghan army. After 2014, Russian helicopters started to be replaced by American ones, but the fleet has not been completely replaced so far.

Among the countries that can assist the Afghan security forces after the withdrawal of troops is Turkey, which is becoming almost a key player after Pakistan. According to Reuters, citing an anonymous Turkish official, Ankara offered to provide security for the Kabul airport, although according to the Turkish Defense Minister, the resolution of this issue will depend on the political, financial and logistical support of the allies. American sources confirm that Ankara has put forward hard conditions, and they are still to be considered. At the same time, the Afghan Civil Aviation Administration has not yet decided whether to transfer responsibility for the airport to the Turkish armed forces when the foreign troops leave.

On June 14, Brussels hosted a NATO summit, which was attended by US President Joe Biden. Turkish President Erdogan has already announced that he will discuss the airport issue at a personal meeting with Biden on the sidelines of the summit. Erdogan said that Turkey is the only reliable country that can stabilize Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops, and that Washington can rely on its NATO ally.

Observers believe that the issue of airport security, being absolutely fundamental for NATO and the United States, because they must be able to return to the country in case of emergency, is inextricably linked with the strategy of withdrawing NATO and US troops from Afghanistan and will definitely be discussed at the NATO summit.