The Afghan violence upsurge: from classical insurgency to COGs
Year 3 - Week 6
ISSN 2603 - 9931
The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul is one of the most luxury ones in the Afghan capital. The hotel, which belonged to the International Hotels Group until 1979, was nationalized during the Soviet occupation of the country, and it has remained as a public building since then. After the 2001 intervention in the country and as one of the two most important hotels in Kabul, it has been mostly dedicated to conventions and workshops also of public organization. And as every public building in Afghanistan, the Intercontinental hotel had police forces protecting accesses. Since the beginning of this 2018 a private security company has assumed the police surveillance and protection role, according to the Afghan Ministry of Interior. Due to the change or independently from it, the last January 20th a group of gunmen entered in the hotel and gunned down a number of guests and personnel. The toll was of 43 confirmed deaths. The attack gave pace to a bloody week in the country and especially in the city.
Afghanistan is a politically blurred entity based on tribal relations, alliances and enmities, more than political structures properly said. Since the 19th Century its geostrategic position was used as pivotal area between the Russian area of influence on the Caucasus and the British expansionism in India and Pakistan. The mountainous country remained somehow independent, in part due to its fragmented society in demographic pockets. It is not until the second half of the 20th Century when this situation changes. In 1973, the general Mohammad Daud seized the monarchic power –present as political system since 1933- in a coup and declares a republic, approaching the USSR against Western powers in the region, but the situation backlashed and Daud is also overthrown in a pro-Soviet coup in 1978. The civil unrest evolves with the Soviet occupation of the country and the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989). Even almost thirty years later, many of the current problems of the country are linked to the aftermath of the war.
The Afghan liberation war introduced a new variable to the proxy wars model where both Soviet and Western blocs fought for the same pivotal area of Afghanistan. This new variable was waved by the arrival to Afghanistan of a number of radical Muslim scholars as the Palestinian Abdullah Azzam, who introduced the idea of the fight for the liberation of Muslim countries under foreign and infidel occupation. Azzam, one of the founders of the MAK, with the funding of a wealthy Saudi follower and later on partner, Osama bin Laden, issued a fatwa calling for the global Muslim resistance against the Soviet occupation of the Muslim land of Afghanistan. The unintended consequence of these fatwa was a double one: first, the creation by the same Osama bin Laden of a new structure, al-Qaida, and second, the seed of Islamism in the country, with a good number of foreign fighters or mujahideen set in Afghan lands and a radicalization process in wide layers of population, coming from the Pakistan madrasas under the name of the “Taliban” or students.
The Taliban, a rigorist, Salafist Muslim sect of ethnic Pashtu origin, spread from the South-West of the country, taking control over big portions of the territory. In September 1995 they captured Herat, bordering Iran, and one year later they toppled Kabul’s regime of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Defense Minister, the legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood. By 1998 the Taliban controlled around the 90% of the country. The remaining 10% remained in hands of resistance groups, as the Northern Alliance, regrouped again around his traditional leader Masood. Because of ideological proximity, the Taliban allowed al-Qaida to keep operating in the safe haven of Afghanistan, from where Osama bin Laden plotted the whole 9/11 attack. The history after that September 2001 is probably well remembered by everyone: shortly afterwards the US-led coalition started bombing the Taliban posts in Afghanistan and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance retakes Kabul. In January 2002 the United Nations deployed under NATO’s mandate a peace enforcement operation, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) as counterinsurgent force to end the battle against the Taliban. The operation, that gave pace to a revision in the concept of classical counterinsurgency, giving a more important role to the civic-military cooperation, worked out fine for some time based in the NATO-developed concept of “Comprehensive Approach”, implemented on the ground on the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. But the initial successes started to backlash as the number of troops in the ground decreased and ISAF came to an end in December 2014 and was substituted by “Resolute Support”, a much more limited non-combat, training mission.
What has happened to reach the level of violence of those seven days between January 20th and January 28th, 2018? We can describe it as classical insurgency doctrine. Maoism revolutionary warfare –the core doctrine of modern insurgencies- dictaminated that the guerrilla or insurgent group shouldn’t entangle with the enemy in lengthy wars, but it should withdraw, go underground, recover and strengthen its military structures and to come back with more developed capabilities to confront the enemy and to consolidate free areas. If we trace the trajectory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but also of other splinters of al-Qaida as al-Qaida in Iraq, rebranded as the Islamic State, we find exactly this pattern: under the pressure of both coalition forces, the insurgency retreated and reinforced to come back stronger.
In the specific case of Afghanistan the pattern is reinforced also by the aforementioned social structure. Even though fragmented, the kinship ties give cohesiveness to each social faction, so the level of inner mobilization in the Taliban arena and consequently the flow of human resources, highly motivated for struggle against the considered as infidel and occupant enemy is guaranteed. But in this context we find another interesting fact: also reproducing the Syrian-Iraqi pattern, the same ideological jihadist trend of the Taliban/pro al-Qaida split in the these ones and a second branch linked to the Islamic State, following ideological fault lines related to the treatment given to territorial control.
If we attend to the January 20th-28th days, we can conclude a pike in the escalation of violence looking for mediatic targets: because of the location of the target and the victims in the case of the Intercontinental Hotel, because of the institution in the case of the attack to Save the Children offices in Jalalabad, or because of the number of casualties in the case of the Chicken Street bombing.
Target one –the Intercontinental Hotel- is a symbol of the pro-Western Kabul. The commando-type operation could be define as a hybrid between guerrilla because of the number of operatives involved and terrorist tactics because of the surprising active shooting attack. Commando type operations denotes a higher level of sophistication in terms of planning and military capabilities and training of the operatives involved.
Target two –Save the Children offices in Jalalabad- represents foreign humanitarian aid in the country. A car bomb was planted close to the building while another commando of gunmen seized the interior and kept about 40 or 50 people trapped inside until they were gunned down by security forces 10 hours later; according to the NGO workers, they could barricade themselves during the shooting, but the gunmen were also equipped with hand grenades and a good amount of ammunition. Again we can find the same hybrid tactical pattern than in the Intercontinental Hotel. The area is surrounded by government facilities, so probably they were also part of the message that the Islamic State as Wilayat Khurasan tried to send. Additionally, and reading between lines, we might point out the moment of the timing of the attack: showing presence as the other jihadist power against the foreign presence in Afghanistan and against the Taliban and al-Qaida proxies.
Target three –a civil neighborhood in central Kabul- is more about the potential number of victims that the physical targets. It is true that the ambulance charged with explosives blasted near a Ministry of Interior building, but the timing, on Saturday (first day of the Muslim week after the holy day of Friday) morning, involved a high number of potential victims doing their weekly shopping in the surrounding markets. The casualty toll raised to 103 deaths and 235 wounded, mostly civilians.
The common element in the three attacks are the civilians as targets. Gone are the days of terrorist attacks over military or security sector related targets. Insurgencies, and the Afghan one is not different, look for a war of attrition, bleeding the physical forces and the psychological morale of the enemy. In this sense, since facing the Western coalition forces have proved futile, the operational shift has focused on the weakest actor, civil society, whose psychological demobilization may mean also the end of the support to a foreign presence who seems to be attracting new and stronger waves of violence over them. Again, this is also classical insurgency doctrine. An again, a classical response, tailored for the Afghan case, may throw some light in a long civil and asymmetric war without an end at sight: people is one of the Centers of Gravity in any conflict, so, what is the Center of Gravity to be protected among the fragmented Afghan people, and how? Answering that question probably deserves another article.