An emboldened Taliban poses a severe and expanding threat to the government of Afghanistan, remains close to al Qaeda, and believes it can return to power by force if necessary, according to a United Nations Security Council report released on Wednesday.
With the last remaining US troops due to leave Afghanistan in the coming months, the report compiled by the UN Monitoring Team, which is charged with tracking security threats in Afghanistan, paints a bleak picture of the security outlook. It will be uncomfortable reading for the Biden administration as it works to end the US military presence in the country.
Biden has pledged to withdraw all remaining US forces by September 11 — the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
As part of last year’s agreement between the preceding Trump administration and the Taliban, the militant Islamist organization promised to instruct its members “not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies” as a quid pro quo for U.S. troop withdrawal.
But the UN Monitoring Team says the Taliban remains “closely aligned” with terrorist network al-Qaeda — which has threatened “war on all fronts” against the US.
The two groups “show no indication of breaking ties,” even if they have temporarily tried to mask their connections, according to the report, although it notes that the Taliban calls this “false information,” according to the report.
The Taliban threat
The departure of US troops comes with violence in Afghanistan at its highest level in two decades. According to the UN report, 2020 was the “most violent year ever recorded by the United Nations in Afghanistan.” Security incidents have risen over 60% in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.
The UN team says that the Taliban is “reported to be responsible for the great majority of targeted assassinations that have become a feature of the violence in Afghanistan and that appear to be undertaken with the objective of weakening the capacity of the Government and intimidating civil society.” And it contends that part of the Taliban leadership has no interest in the peace process, saying that “both deputy leaders of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Yaqub Omari and Sirajuddin Haqqani are reported by Member States to oppose peace talks and favour a military solution.”
Haqqani is the commander of the Haqqani network, a powerful semi-autonomous force within the Taliban structure. According to the UN, Mullah Yaqub (also spelled Yaqoob), son of the late Taliban founder Mullah Omar, was appointed as head of the Taliban’s Military Commission in May 2020.
The UN Monitors assess that the “security situation in Afghanistan remains as tense and challenging as at any time in recent history,” with member states reporting that the “Taliban have been emboldened to sustain attacks for longer periods while also exercising greater freedom of movement. This has allowed the Taliban to mass forces around key provincial capitals and district centres, enabling them to remain poised to launch attacks.”
They add that many believe the Taliban are “seeking to shape future military operations when levels of departing foreign troops are no longer able to effectively respond.”
According to the UN report, member states assess that the Taliban “contest or control an estimated 50 to 70 per cent of Afghan territory outside of urban centers, while also exerting direct control over 57 per cent of district administrative centers.”
Asfandyar Mir, South Asia security analyst at Stanford University, says the Taliban appears ready to go on the offensive against the Afghan government. “Taliban is starting to put major pressure in provinces adjacent to Kabul – including, worryingly, in neighboring Laghman, which saw substantial Afghan security forces defections to the Taliban,” Mir told CNN. “In the south of the country, the Taliban is poised to put more pressure on provincial capitals.”
The report assesses that, despite twenty years of warfare, Taliban numbers remain “robust” and “recruitment has remained steady” – with estimates of the insurgent group’s fighting strength ranging from 58,000 to 100,000.
In contrast, Afghanistan’s military is in decline. “As of February 2021, the strength of Afghan Forces stood at approximately 308,000 personnel, well below its target strength of 352,000,” the report says.
That leaves neither side with a decisive advantage. According to an assessment released earlier this year by CTC Sentinel, a journal published by US military academy West Point, the Taliban would have a “slight military advantage” when the last remaining US troops leave Afghanistan, which will then “likely grow in a compounding fashion.”
The UN report notes that “air contributions provided by coalition forces have been an essential support for ground operations; it remains to be seen how Afghan Forces will perform without it.”
“The coming international military withdrawal … will challenge Afghan Forces by limiting aerial operation with fewer drones and radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical support and artillery, as well as a disruption in training,” the UN team notes.
It also expresses concern that better-trained units such as Afghan commandos would have to shoulder much of the burden of fighting, if lesser disciplined units within the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police begin to collapse or defect.
Nor are the Taliban short of revenue, according to the UN report. In 2020, according to estimates cited by the report, the Taliban earned the equivalent of over $400 million from the mining sector, and similar revenues from opium poppy crops.
The report also finds that “the Taliban have increasingly used expanding territorial control to extort monies from a wide range of public infrastructure services, including road construction, telecommunications and road transport.”
With money to spend, the Taliban has invested in more sophisticated weaponry. The UN team points to its use of commercially available drones laden with explosives for attacks and a spike in the use of magnetic improvised explosive devices and suicide vehicle bombs (VBIEDs).
The Al Qaeda connection
President Biden argued in April that the United States’ task in Afghanistan was complete. “We went to Afghanistan to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. We delivered justice to Osama Bin Laden and we degraded the terrorist threat of al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” the President said.
But the UN report finds that a “significant part” of the leadership of al Qaeda are still believed to be in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region. It says reports of Osama bin Laden’s top advisor Ayman al-Zawahiri’s death have not been confirmed, with one member state reporting “that he is probably alive but too frail to be featured in propaganda.”
While the Taliban “maintains its long-standing practice of denying the presence of foreign terrorist fighters,” the UN monitors estimate there are 8,000 to 10,000 belonging to various militant groups in Afghanistan, with most assessed to be “at minimum tolerated or protected by the Taliban.”
The monitoring team believes that the Taliban are trying to exert greater control over al Qaeda but cautions that “it is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al-Qaida in Afghanistan.”
It adds that ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda have “grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second generational ties.”
The UN team also says that according to member states, “Al Qaida maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Doha agreement.”
The UN team stresses that it “will be important for the international community to monitor any sign of Afghanistan again becoming a destination for extremists with both regional and international agendas.”
Asfandyar Mir agrees that al-Qaeda remains firmly aligned with the Afghan Taliban and supports the Taliban strategy of securing a US withdrawal. “I expect it to once again find a safe sanctuary in Afghanistan, though it is unclear if al-Qaeda will reconstitute an international terror operation from Afghanistan,” Mir says.
In the immediate future the UN warns that the Taliban may conduct “attacks on withdrawing forces in a further attempt to score propaganda points over the United States.” And its prognosis for the longer term is gloomy.
The report concludes that the Taliban’s “intent appears to be to continue to strengthen its military position as leverage. It believes that it can achieve almost all of its objectives by negotiation or, if necessary, by force.”
Mir concurs, saying: “The Afghan Taliban poses a major threat to the survival of the Afghan government, which is likely to substantially grow with the full withdrawal of US forces.”