ecoi.net featured topic on Afghanistan: Overview of security in Afghanistan

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1. Security in the Country
2. State and Non-State Actors
2.1. Afghan Government and Security Forces
2.2 Insurgent Groups
3. Sources

Overview of security in Afghanistan

1. Security in the country

For information on the security situation in Afghanistan during the period from January 2010 to September 2018, see the following report:

2020

“In February [2020] the Afghan Taliban signed a peace agreement with the USA ahead of a proposed withdrawal of US troops.” (AI, 7 April 2021)[i]

“On March 2, Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed he ordered USFOR-A to begin a phased drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as stipulated in the agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban on February 29.The United States has committed to drawing down its number of troops in Afghanistan to 8,600 within 135 days of the agreement’s signing and to withdraw all troops within 14 months, if the Taliban meet the conditions outlined in the agreement. On March 18, USFOR-A spokesperson Colonel Sonny Leggett confirmed that the drawdown of U.S. troops was proceeding, but did not specify how many had already been withdrawn or how many remained in country.” (SIGAR, 30 April 2020, p. 70)[ii]

“[…] [A]t the end of May, […] the Taliban announced that they would observe a three-day ceasefire during the Islamic holiday Eid al-Fitr – only the second ceasefire the group has ever offered. The Afghan government quickly confirmed that its forces would likewise cease hostilities. At the end of those three days, both parties signalled that they would sustain reduced levels of violence thereafter and continue a phased release of prisoners until intra-Afghan talks began.” (ICG, 11 August 2020, p. 2)[iii]

“UNAMA monitoring and documentation of civilian casualties over the Eid ceasefire period indicates that the parties to the conflict indeed have the ability to reduce the fighting with a positive impact on civilians when there is political will to do so. Over the three days of Eid (24-26 May), UNAMA documented 45 per cent fewer civilian casualties than the average three-day period for May 2020, amounting to 49 civilian casualties (27 killed and 22 injured).” (UNAMA, July 2020, p. 6)[iv]

“After the signing of the U.S.-Taliban Agreement and the issuance of the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration on February 29, attacks against U.S. and coalition forces largely stopped, but violence against Afghan security forces and civilians continued, even after the start of intra-Afghan negotiations on September 12.” (USDOS, 30 March 2021)[v]

“Even more so than previously [before the US-Taleban agreement], this is now an intra-Afghan war. While all Afghan parties to the conflict are supported by foreign countries, those doing the killing and those being killed are now almost all Afghan. Also, thus far in 2020, the conflict has continued unabated, despite the coronavirus pandemic and the peace process. Indeed, it has often seemed that the war was the only activity unaffected by Covid-19. The US-Taleban agreement and planned intra-Afghan talks have so far brought few benefits to Afghan civilians overall, although probably more to those living in Taleban-held areas and in cities who have been spared, respectively, night raids and US airstrikes, and fewer large-scale urban attacks.” (AAN, 16 August 2020)[vi]

“For civilians living deep in areas of Taleban control living without the threat of air strikes, large scale ground operations or night raids, life has taken on a normality many have not known for years; In areas under government control, aside from the decreased likelihood of being caught up in large-scale terrorist attacks, the risk is much the same as it was prior to the signing of the Doha agreement; For people living in contested areas, the defensive posture of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) means Taleban attacks against ANSF positions have become more frequent, as are indiscriminate responses by the ANSF; the risk for civilians of being caught in the crossfire has increased;” (AAN, 28 October 2020)

“On November 17, Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller announced another reduction in U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, from the 4,000–5,000 reached in November [2020], to 2,500 as of January 15, 2021.” (SIGAR, 30 January 2021, p. 47)

“Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban continued this quarter [October – December 2020] amid sustained high levels of insurgent and extremist violence in Afghanistan.” (SIGAR, 30 January 2021, p. 47)

“According to findings by AIHRC, a total of 8,500 civilians have been killed or injured throughout 2020; among whom 2,958 were killed, and 5,542 injured. These figures show a 21 percent decrease in the number of civilian casualties. The total number of civilian casualties in 2019 was 10,772; 2,817 killed and 7955 injured. The data recorded by AIHRC indicate that out of the total 8,500 civilian casualties 5,539 are men, 847 women, and 2019 children. The gender of 95 of these victims could not be identified. The civilian casualties report by AIHRC shows that in every 24 hours in 2020, on average eight civilians were killed, and 15 injured.” (AIHRC, 28 January 2021)[vii]

“Perpetrators of Civilian Casualties in Afghanistan in 2020

The Taliban: According to findings by AIHRC, the civilian casualties caused by Taliban attacks decreased by 40 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. The main reason for this reduction could be not conducting complex and suicide attacks in the major cities of the country. A total of 4,567 civilians have been killed or injured [1,523 killed, and 3,044 injured] in Afghanistan in 2020 due to Taliban attacks; while during the same period in 2019, the total number of civilian casualties caused by Taliban attacks was 7,727.

ISIS: The data recorded by AIHRC show that the number of civilian casualties due to ISIS attacks decreased by 21 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. The total number of civilians killed or injured [160 killed and 243 injured] by ISIS attacks in Afghanistan in 2020 is 403; while the total number of civilians killed or injured by ISIS in Afghanistan in 2019 was 515.

Pro-government forces and its international allies: There has been 16 percent reduction in number of civilian casualties caused by pro-government and its international ally forces. The government and its ally forces were the cause of 1,490 civilian casualties in 2019; while they have caused 1,249 civilian casualties in 2020 [386 killed and 863 injured].

Unknown perpetrators: The number of civilian casualties caused by unknown perpetrators has more than doubled in 2020. […] No groups or individuals have taken responsibility for 2,107 civilian casualties (857 killed, and 1,250 injured) perpetrated in Afghanistan in 2020. Another 174 civilians have been harmed due to Pakistani rocket fires in Afghanistan which includes 31 killed and 143 injured.” (AIHRC, 28 January 2021)

“From 1 January to 31 December 2020, UNAMA documented 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 killed and 5,785 injured), a 15 per cent reduction from the number of civilian casualties recorded in 2019 and the lowest number of civilian casualties since 2013.” (UNAMA, February 2021, p. 11)

The February 2021 annual report on civilian casualties in 2020 by UNAMA contains the following chart:

(UNAMA, February 2021, p. 12)

“Although UNAMA welcomes the overall decline in civilian casualties, the rise in the last quarter of 2020 is of particular concern, especially as this corresponds with the formal commencement of the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations on 12 September 2020. This was the first time since it began systematic documentation in 2009 that UNAMA documented an increase in the number of civilian casualties recorded in the fourth quarter compared with the prior quarter. In addition, the last three months of 2020 marked a 45 per cent increase in civilian casualties in comparison to the same period in 2019, especially from the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and targeted killings. Of further concern is the worrying increases in civilian harm from tactics which exacerbated the environment of fear and paralysed many parts of society.” (UNAMA, February 2021, p. 11)

(UNAMA, February 2021, p. 11)

“From 1 January to 31 December 2020, UNAMA attributed 62 per cent of all civilian casualties to AntiGovernment Elements, with 45 per cent attributed to the Taliban, eight per cent to ISIL-KP, and nine per cent to undetermined Anti-Government Elements. Pro-Government Forces caused 25 per cent of civilian casualties in 2020. UNAMA attributed 22 per cent of civilian casualties to Afghan national security forces and one per cent each to international military forces, progovernment armed groups, and undetermined or multiple Pro-Government Forces, respectively.” (UNAMA, February 2021, p. 17)

The UNAMA annual report for 2020 also contains a chart of civilian casualties caused by the parties of conflict:

(UNAMA, February 2021, p. 18)

“The Times confirmed 3,378 security-force and 1,468 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2020.” [Note: The New York Times (NYT) figures are lower than UNAMA’s for methodological reasons. The cited NYT Afghan War Casualty Report includes all significant security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters. Numbers are, according to the NYT, incomplete as many local officials do not confirm casualty information.] (NYT, 31 December 2020)[viii]

2021

“The United Nations recorded 7,138 security-related incidents between 13 November and 11 February, a 46.7 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2020 and contrasting with traditionally lower numbers during the winter season. Established trends of incident types remained unchanged, with armed clashes accounting for 63.6 per cent of all incidents. Anti-government elements initiated 85.7 per cent of all security-related incidents, including 92.1 per cent of armed clashes. The southern, followed by the eastern and northern regions, recorded the highest number of security incidents. Those regions collectively accounted for 68.9 per cent of all recorded incidents, with Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Balkh Provinces recording most incidents. […] No party to the conflict achieved significant territorial gains. The Taliban maintained pressure on key transportation axes and urban centres, including vulnerable provincial capitals such as in Farah, Kunduz, Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. The Afghan National Defence and Security Forces continued to conduct operations to secure key highways and reverse Taliban gains, particularly in the south following recent Taliban offensives on Lashkar Gah and Kandahar cities.” (UNGA, 12 March 2021, p. 5)[ix]

“On 15 January, the United States announced that the number of its military forces in Afghanistan had been reduced to 2,500.” (UNGA, 12 March 2021, p. 3)

“In a statement, the Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that the Ministers of Defence had decided to defer a final decision on the future of the NATO presence in Afghanistan pending further consultations ahead of the deadline of 1 May 2021.” (UNGA, 12 March 2021, p. 4)

“Between 1 January and 31 March 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured), highlighting the urgent need for measures to reduce violence and the ultimate, overarching need to reach a lasting peace agreement. The number of civilians killed and injured increased by 29 per cent compared with the first quarter of 2020; this also included increases in both women (up 37 per cent) and child casualties (up 23 per cent).” (UNAMA, April 2021, p. 1)

The UNAMA report on civilian casualties for the first quarter of 2021 provides the following chart on civilian casualties:

(UNAMA, April 2021, p. 1)

“The increase in civilian casualties compared with the first quarter of 2020 was mainly driven by the same trends that caused the increase of civilian casualties in the last quarter of last year – ground engagements, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and targeted killings all continued to have an extreme impact on civilians during this year’s comparatively warm winter. In addition, there was no agreement by the parties to reduce violence in the first three months of 2021, which could have had a significant positive impact on civilians, as the reduction in violence week had in February 2020.” (UNAMA, April 2021, p. 1)

“Anti-Government Elements continued to be responsible for the majority, 61 per cent, of all civilian casualties in the first three months of 2021, while Pro-Government Forces continued to cause approximately one quarter (27 per cent) of the total civilian casualties. UNAMA documented increases in the number of civilian casualties attributed to both the Taliban (up 39 per cent) and the Afghan National Army (up 35 per cent), with the Taliban responsible for 43.5 per cent of all civilian casualties, and the Afghan National Army responsible for 17 per cent. UNAMA remains deeply concerned about the continued deliberate targeting of civilians by Anti-Government Elements, particularly through targeted killings, referred to by many as ‘assassinations’. Throughout the first quarter of 2021, these attacks continued, including targeting of media workers, civil society activists, members of the judiciary and the civilian government administration, including a particularly worrying trend of targeting of women.” (UNAMA, April 2021, p. 3)

“On 14 April, United States President Joe Biden announced that ‘U.S. troops, as well as forces deployed by our NATO Allies and operational partners, will be out of Afghanistan before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th.’ The announcement was not totally unexpected given that the US-Taleban deal signed in Doha, Qatar on 29 February 2020 required the withdrawal of all foreign forces by 1 May 2021. However, the announcement was a significant departure from what many had expected given that, up to then, the US had claimed the withdrawal would be a condition-based. It was commonly construed, based on the US-Taleban Doha deal, that the conditions allowing a full withdrawal of foreign forces would be a significant reduction in violence and at least the framework for a political settlement between the government and the Taleban. Biden, however, made it clear that this was not the case, saying, ‘American troops shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip between warring parties in other countries.’ […] The Biden administration’s withdrawal announcement, while not unexpected, has set in train a series of responses, affecting the political and security landscape in Afghanistan. The decision to make the troop withdrawal total and unconditional coupled with the Taleban’s persistent refusal to engage with the Islamic Republic in serious negotiations aimed at a political settlement has created the perception that the Taleban will push for a military takeover of the country following the full withdrawal of foreign forces in September. […] Of particular note is that, for the first time in 20 years, powerbrokers are speaking publicly about mobilising armed men outside ANSF and government structures. While the presence of militias has been a local fact of life for many Afghans for years […], never have public pronouncements about the need to mobilise, nor the wish to establish autonomous spheres of influence been expressed so brazenly.” (AAN, 10 June 2021)

“The top American military commander in Afghanistan [Austin ‘Scott’ Miller] expressed deep concern Tuesday that the country could slide into a chaotic civil war and face ‘very hard times’ unless its fractious civilian leadership united and the haphazard array of armed groups joining the anti-Taliban fight were controlled and made ‘accountable’ for their actions in battle. The bleak assessment by Gen. Austin ‘Scott’ Miller, who met with journalists, came as Taliban forces continued their rapid advance across northern Afghan provinces and expanded into other rural regions. The insurgents also began drawing closer in a circle around the capital city.” (Washington Post, 29 June 2021)x

“The U.S. intelligence community concluded last week that the government of Afghanistan could collapse as soon as six months after the American military withdrawal from the country is completed, according to officials with knowledge of the new assessment. American intelligence agencies revised their previously more optimistic estimates as the Taliban swept through northern Afghanistan last week, seizing dozens of districts and surrounding major cities. Afghan security forces frequently surrendered without a fight, leaving their Humvees and other American-supplied equipment to the insurgents. […] On Wednesday, Taliban fighters were battling government troops inside the northern city of Kunduz after occupying the main border crossing with Tajikistan the previous day and reaching the outskirts of northern Afghanistan’s main hub, Mazar-e-Sharif. Tajikistan’s border service said 134 Afghan troops at the crossing were granted refuge while some 100 others were killed or captured by the Taliban.” (WSJ, 23 June 2021)xi

“The Taliban now controls roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centres in Afghanistan. […] The areas under Taliban control in the north are increasingly strategic, running along Afghanistan’s border with Central Asian states. Last month, the group took control of Imam Sahib, a town in Kunduz province opposite Uzbekistan and gained control of a key trade route. (Al Jazeera, 4 July 2021)

“At least 405 pro-government forces and 260 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in May, the highest total death toll in a single month since July 2019” (NYT, 3 June 2021)
“At least 703 Afghan security forces and 208 civilians were killed in Afghanistan in June, the highest count among security forces since The Times began tracking casualties in September 2018.” (NYT, 1 July 2021)

[Note: The New York Times (NYT) figures are lower than UNAMA’s for methodological reasons. The cited NYT Afghan War Casualty Report includes all significant security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters. Numbers are, according to the NYT, incomplete as many local officials do not confirm casualty information.]

2. State and Non-State Actors

2.1. Afghan Government and Security Forces

“Three governmental entities share responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country: the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defense, and the National Directorate of Security. The Afghan National Police, under the Ministry of Interior, has primary responsibility for internal order and for the Afghan Local Police, a community-based self-defense force with no legal ability to arrest or independently investigate crimes. In June, President Ghani announced plans to subsume the Afghan Local Police into other branches of the security forces provided individuals can present a record free of allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. As of year’s end, the implementation of these plans was underway. The Major Crimes Task Force, also under the Ministry of Interior, investigates major crimes including government corruption, human trafficking, and criminal organizations. The Afghan National Army, under the Ministry of Defense, is responsible for external security, but its primary activity is fighting the insurgency internally. The National Directorate of Security functions as an intelligence agency and has responsibility for investigating criminal cases concerning national security. Some areas of the country were outside of government control, and antigovernment forces, including the Taliban, instituted their own justice and security systems. Civilian authorities generally maintained control over the security forces, although security forces occasionally acted independently. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.” (USDOS, 30 March 2021, executive summary)

“As of January 28, 2021, CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan] reported 307,947 ANDSF [Afghan National Defence and Security Forces] personnel (186,859 MOD [Ministry of Defense] and 121,088 MOI Ministry of Interior]) biometrically enrolled and eligible for pay in APPS. There are an additional 7,715 civilians (3,031 MOD and 3,579 MOI).” (SIGAR, 30 April 2021, p. 66)

„Funding for the Afghan Local Police (ALP), the largest and longest-lasting Afghan local defence force, ended on 30 September. Despite knowing this was going to happen for more than a year, it was only in early summer that the government decided what to do with the tens of thousands of ALP who are present in more than 150 districts and almost every province. The force has had a mixed record, with some units effectively and with determination defending their communities, while others have behaved so badly they have generated support for the Taleban. Yet whatever the record of individual units, dissolving the force is bound to have repercussions for security. […] The plan is for one third of ALP to be disarmed and retired, one third to be transferred to the Afghan National Police (ANP) and one third to the Afghan National Army Territorial Force (ANA-TF). The Ministries of Interior and Defence now have three months to sort, transfer and re-train, or disarm and retire about 18,000 armed men present in 31 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, in the middle of a war and a still-lingering pandemic.” (AAN, 6 October 2020)

“The Afghan National Army Territorial Force (ANA-TF) is the newest ANDSF force element. It is responsible for holding terrain in permissive (less violent) security environments. Falling directly under the command of regular ANA corps, the ANA-TF is designed to be a lightly armed local security force that is more accountable to the central government than local forces like the now-dissolved Afghan Local Police (ALP).” (SIGAR, 30 April 2021, p. 70)

“As a result [of the Taliban’s recent strategic gains], a worried government this week launched what it called National Mobilization, arming local volunteers. Observers say the move only resurrects militias that will be loyal to local commanders or powerful Kabul-allied warlords, who wrecked the Afghan capital during the inter-factional fighting of the 1990s and killed thousands of civilians.” (AP, 25 June 2021)xii

The March 2018 German-language expert opinion on Afghanistan by Friederike Stahlmann provides further information on state actors in Afghanistan (Stahlmann, 28 March 2018, section 3.2)[xiii]

2.2 Insurgent Groups

“[Anti-Government Elements] include members of the ‘Taliban’ as well as other non-State organized armed groups taking a direct part in hostilities against Pro-Government Forces including the Haqqani Network (which operates under Taliban leadership and largely follows Taliban policies and instructions), Al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union, Lashkari Tayyiba, Jaysh Muhammed, groups identifying themselves as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province/‘Daesh’ and other militia and armed groups pursuing political, ideological or economic objectives including armed criminal groups directly engaged in hostile acts on behalf of other Anti-Government Elements.” (UNAMA, February 2021, p. 102)

“Terrorist and insurgent groups exploit Afghanistan’s ungoverned spaces, including the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), elements of al-Qa’ida, and terrorist groups targeting Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), continued to use the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region as a safe haven. The Government of National Unity (GNU) struggled to assert control over this remote terrain, where the population is largely detached from national institutions.” (USDOS, 1 November 2019)

Taliban

“The insurgency is still led primarily by the Taliban movement. The death in 2013 of its original leader, Mullah Umar, was revealed in a July 2015 Taliban announcement. In a disputed selection process, he was succeeded by Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who in turn was killed by a U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle strike on May 21, 2016. Several days later, the Taliban confirmed his death and announced the selection of one of his deputies, Haibatullah Akhunzadeh, as the new Taliban leader. The group announced two deputies: Mullah Yaqub (son of Mullah Umar) and Sirajuddin Haqqani (operational commander of the Haqqani Network).” (CRS, 19 May 2017, p. 16)[xiv]

“The Taliban is an umbrella organization comprising loosely connected insurgent groups, including more or less autonomous groups with varying degrees of loyalty to the leadership and the idea of The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s organisational structure is hierarchical, with an Amir ul – Muminin (Commander of the Faithful) on the top. He gives moral, religious and political statements, oversees judges, courts, and political commissions, assigns shadow governors and is in command of the military organization.” (Landinfo, 13 May 2016, p. 4)[xv]

“By the start of the 2019 fighting season, which was announced on 12 April under the name ‘Al-Fath’ or ‘Victory’ the political backdrop had changed. In fact, extensive talks had already taken place in early 2019 between the Taliban and the United States of America. The first week of Al-Fath saw the highest level of security incidents in two years. The Taliban enjoy robust supplies of weapons, ammunition, funding and manpower, with 60,000 to 65,000 fighters and half that number or more of facilitators and other non – combatant members” (UN Security Council, 13 June 2019, p. 3)[xvi]

“[T]he Taliban had reportedly undertaken a restructuring and made numerous appointments to senior leadership positions inside Afghanistan, which were described as the removal of the older generation in favour of younger Taliban leaders. According to the same interlocutors, the provincial shadow and deputy shadow governors, along with the provincial military commanders, were all replaced in the Provinces of Bamyan, Baghlan, Kabul, Kapisa, Kunar, Laghman, Parwan, Samangan, Takhar and Uruzgan. Ousted individuals were reportedly removed owing to complaints from rank and file Taliban concerning deficiencies in logistical and financial support.” (UN Security Council, 30 May 2018, p. 5)

“Since the post-2014 U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is little sign that the Taliban’s firepower has waned, or that the group is suffering from battle fatigue. Through persistent violence, the Taliban formations have proven they are still a major force in Afghanistan. It is likely the support structures the group has established over the last two decades remain intact. Since the fall of its so-called Islamic Emirate in 2001, the militant group has restricted the governments that followed from fully governing the country.” (JF, 2 June 2018)[xvii]

“On 29 February, the Taliban and the U.S. signed an agreement that commits the U.S. to a fourteen-month phased withdrawal of military forces in exchange for Taliban commitments to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a safe harbour for terrorists. The agreement also obligates the Taliban to commence peace negotiations with the Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. This breakthrough comes after a decade of on-and-off U.S. and other efforts to catalyse a peace process, throughout which observers have questioned the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate a political settlement that will require substantive compromise. The group’s willingness to compromise remains an open question, but its interest in probing whether it could achieve its objectives through a negotiated settlement appears genuine – prompted, at least in part, by the elusiveness of a clear military victory.” (ICG, 30 March 2020)

“It [the 29 February 2020 agreement] committed the government in Kabul, which was not a party to the negotiations, to release up to 5,000 imprisoned Taliban members before peace talks commenced and the Taliban to release 1,000 prisoners in return. […] [T]he day after the agreement was signed, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said his government could not honour terms it had not been present to negotiate.” (ICG, 11 August 2020, p.1)

“Negotiations for the US and Taliban had agreed that 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be released before they entered talks with the Afghan government. Thousands were freed - however, 400 remained in prison.” (BBC, 14 August 2020)[xviii]

“The Afghan government said Monday it would not release the remaining 320 Taliban prisoners, stalling peace talks that are set to go ahead in a couple of days. […] Only last week, a traditional council reached an agreement to release a final 400 prisoners. Some of the prisoners set to be released have committed violent attacks on Afghans and foreigners.” (DW, 17 August 2020)[xix]

“The violence and mistrust that followed the U.S.-Taliban agreement amplified perceptions, voiced by some in Afghan civil society, media and government, that the Taliban might be prepared to engage in talks but not to compromise to forge a political settlement of the conflict. Indeed, the sequencing of peace efforts – beginning with bilateral commitments between the U.S. and Taliban, then moving to intra-Afghan talks that might end the war – allowed the insurgent movement to participate in the process without making significant concessions and with their leverage enhanced by those the U.S. made.” (ICG, 11 August 2020, p. 2)

“In the year following the US-Taliban peace deal of February 2020 - which was the culmination of a long spell of direct talks - the Taliban appeared to shift its tactics from complex attacks in cities and on military outposts to a wave of targeted assassinations that terrorised Afghan civilians.

The targets - journalists, judges, peace activists, women in positions of power - appeared to suggest that the Taliban had not changed their extremist ideology, only their strategy.[…]
Having outlasted a superpower through two decades of war, the Taliban began seizing vast swathes of territory, threatening to once again topple a government in Kabul in the wake of a foreign power withdrawing.
The group is thought to now be stronger in numbers than at any point since they were ousted in 2001 - with up to 85,000 full time fighters, according to recent Nato estimates. Their control of territory is harder to estimate, as districts swing back and forth between them and government forces, but recent estimates put it somewhere between a third and a fifth of the country.” (BBC, 3 July 2021)

In his March 2021 analysis, Thomas Ruttig discusses “the question of whether the Afghan Taliban have changed their repressive pre-fall 2001 positions, particularly on rights and freedoms—or even their wider ideology, and if so, how much and whether for good”. (Ruttig, March 2021)[xx]

The following maps of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ (FDD) Long War Journal[xxi] contrast changes in Taliban district control of March 2020 and July 2021.
Districts depicted in light grey are under the control of the Government of Afghanistan or undetermined.

(FDD’s Long War Journal, accessed on 28 March 2020)

(FDD’s Long War Journal, accessed on 5 July 2021)

Haqqani Network

The “Haqqani Network,” founded by Jalaludin Haqqani, a mujahedin commander and U.S. ally during the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet occupation, is often cited by U.S. officials as a potent threat to U.S. and allied forces and interests, and a “critical enabler of Al Qaeda.” […] Some see the Haqqani Network as on the decline. The Haqqani Network had about 3,000 fighters and supporters at its zenith during 2004-2010, but it is believed to have far fewer currently. However, the network is still capable of carrying out operations, particularly in Kabul city. […] The group apparently has turned increasingly to kidnapping to perhaps earn funds and publicize its significance.” (CRS, 19 May 2017, p. 20)

“Strength: HQN [Haqqani Network] is believed to have several hundred core members, but it is estimated that the organization is able to draw upon a pool of upwards of 10,000 fighters. HQN is integrated into the larger Afghan Taliban and cooperates with other terrorist organizations operating in the region, including al-Qa’ida and Lashkar e-Tayyiba.

Location/Area of Operation: HQN is active along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and across much of southeastern Afghanistan, particularly in Loya Paktia, and has repeatedly targeted Kabul in its attacks. The group’s leadership has historically maintained a power base around Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Funding and External Aid: In addition to the funding it receives as part of the broader Afghan Taliban, HQN receives much of its funds from donors in Pakistan and the Gulf, as well as through criminal activities such as kidnapping, extortion, smuggling, and other licit and illicit business ventures.” (USDOS, 19 September 2018)

Al Qaeda

“From 2001 until 2015, Al Qaeda was considered by U.S. officials to have only a minimal presence (fewer than 100) in Afghanistan itself, operating mostly as a facilitator for insurgent groups and mainly in the northeast. However, in late 2015 U.S. Special Operations forces and their ANDSF partners discovered and destroyed a large Al Qaeda training camp in Qandahar Province—a discovery that indicated that Al Qaeda had expanded its presence in Afghanistan. In April 2016, U.S. commanders publicly raised their estimates of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan to 100-300, and said that relations between Al Qaeda and the Taliban are increasingly close. Afghan officials put the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan at 300- 500.” (CRS, 19 May 2017, p. 17)

“Al Qaeda (AQ) is still assessed to have a presence in Afghanistan and its decades-long ties with the Taliban appear to have remained strong in recent years. In May 2021, U.N. sanctions monitors reported that Al Qaeda ‘has minimized over communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position.’ In October 2020, Afghan forces killed a high-ranking AQ operative in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, where he reportedly was living and working with Taliban forces, further underscoring questions about AQ-Taliban links and Taliban intentions with regard to Al Qaeda. In general, U.S. government assessments indicate that the Taliban are not fulfilling their counterterrorism commitments concerning Al Qaeda. For example, in its report on the final quarter of 2020, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Defense relayed an assessment from the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that the Taliban maintain ties to Al Qaeda and that some AQ members are ‘integrated into the Taliban’s forces and command structure.’ In a semiannual report released in April 2021, the Department of Defense stated, ‘The Taliban have maintained mutually beneficial relations with AQ-related organizations and are unlikely to take substantive action against these groups.’” (CRS, 11 June 2021, pp.1-2)

Islamic State – Khorasan Province

“An Islamic State affiliate—Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP, often also referred to as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan, ISIL-K), named after an area that once included parts of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan—has been active in Afghanistan since mid-2014.” (CRS, 19 May 2017, p. 20)

“IS formally launched its Afghanistan operations on January 10, 2015, when Pakistani and Afghan militants pledged their allegiance to its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq[…]. Since then, IS-Khorasan has proved itself to be one of group’s most brutal iterations, attacking soft targets, targeting Shia populations, killing Sufis and destroying shrines, as well as beheading its own dissidents, kidnapping their children and marrying off their widows. […]

IS-Khorasan chose to base itself in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, a strategic location bordering Pakistan’s tribal areas. Its recruits came from both sides of the porous border and could easily escape a surgical strike or military operation by fleeing to either side of the Durand line. […]

From the very beginning, IS-Khorasan identified its targets—Shia communities, foreign troops, the security forces, the Afghan central government and the Taliban, who had not previously been challenged by an insurgent group. […]

“At present, ISIL strongholds in Afghanistan are in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan and Laghman. The total strength of ISIL in Afghanistan is estimated at between 2,500 and 4,000 militants. ISIL is also reported to control some training camps in Afghanistan, and to have created a network of cells in various Afghan cities, including Kabul. The local ISIL leadership maintains close contacts with the group’s core in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq. Important personnel appointments are made through the central leadership, and the publication of propaganda videos is coordinated. Following the killing of ISIL leader Abu Sayed Bajauri on 14 July 2018, the leadership council of ISIL in Afghanistan appointed Mawlawi Ziya ul-Haq (aka Abu Omar Al-Khorasani) as the fourth ‘emir’ of the group since its establishment.” (UN Security Council, 1 February 2019, p. 7)

“Beyond the Taliban, a significant share of U.S. operations have been aimed at the local Islamic State affiliate, known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP, also known as ISIS-K). Estimates of ISKP strength generally ranged from 2,000 to 4,000 fighters until ISKP “collapsed” in late 2019 due to offensives by U.S. and Afghan forces and, separately, the Taliban. ISKP and Taliban forces have sometimes fought over control of territory or because of political or other differences. A number of ISKP leaders have been killed in U.S. strikes since 2016, and Afghan forces arrested and captured two successive ISKP leaders in the spring of 2020. U.S. officials caution that ISKP remains a threat, pointing to several high profile attacks attributed to the group in 2020. The United Nations reports that casualties from ISKP attacks in 2020 decreased 45% from 2019. Some suggest that the Taliban’s participation in peace talks or a putative political settlement could prompt disaffected (or newly unemployed) fighters to join ISKP.” (CRS, 11 June 2021, pp.5-6)

The March 2018 German-language expert opinion on Afghanistan by Friederike Stahlmann provides further information on non-state actors in Afghanistan (Stahlmann, 28 March 2018, section 3.1)

3. Sources

(All links accessed 6 July 2021, except if otherwise noted)


[i] Amnesty International (AI) is an international human rights organisation.

[ii] The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is a US government body that provides oversight on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

[iii] The International Crisis Group (ICG) is a Brussels-based transnational non-profit, non-governmental organization that carries out field research on violent conflict and advances policies to prevent, mitigate or resolve conflict.

[iv] The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is a political UN mission established on 28 March 2002 by United Nations Security Council Resolution 1401.

[v] The US Department of State (USDOS) is the US federal executive department mainly responsible for international affairs and foreign policy issues.

[vi] The Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) is an independent non-profit policy research organisation with its main office in Kabul.

[vii] The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) is a national human rights organisation in Afghanistan, dedicated to promoting, protecting and monitoring human rights and the investigation of human rights abuses.

[viii] The New York Times (NYT) is a US Daily Newspaper based in New York City. The NYT publishes the Afghan War Casualty Report, which includes confirmed casualty figures of pro-government forces and civilians throughout Afghanistan on a weekly basis. The Afghan War Casualty Report only includes security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters across Afghanistan. It is therefore necessarily incomplete, the NYT notes, as many local officials refuse to confirm casualty figures. (NYT, 21 January 2021)

[ix] The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is one of the six principal organs of the United Nations and the only one in which all member nations have equal representation.

[x] Washington Post (WP) is a US daily newspaper.

[xi] Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is a US daily newspaper

[xii Associated Press (AP) is an international news and press agency based in New York City.

[xiii] Friederike Stahlmann is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (Germany) with a focus on Afghanistan.

[xiv] The US Congressional Research Service (CRS) is a public policy research arm of the US Congress.

[xv] The Norwegian Country of Origin Information Center Landinfo is an independent body within the Norwegian immigration authorities that provides COI services to various actors within Norway’s immigration authorities.

[xvi] The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), one of the six main organs of the UN, is responsible for maintaining international peace and security. The UNSC regularly publishes reports about their international missions and worldwide developments concerning politics, security, human rights etc.

[xvii] The Jamestown Foundation (JF) is a Washington, D.C.-based information platform providing media and monitoring reports aimed at informing and educating policy makers and the broader policy community about events and trends in societies that are strategically or tactically important to the United States and in which public access to such information is often restricted.

[xviii] The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a British public service broadcaster headquartered in London.

[xix] Deutsche Welle (DW) is the German international broadcaster, an independent, international media company.

[xx] Thomas Ruttig is an analyst for the Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), an independent non-profit policy research organization headquartered in Kabul which provides analyses on Afghanistan and its surrounding region.

[xxi] FDD’s (Foundation for Defense of Democracies) Long War Journal is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy (FDD, About FDD). FDD reports news on the global war on terror and is rated “right-center biased on aligning with Neo-Conservative positions regarding the war on terror” by Media Bias/Fact Check (Media Bias/Fact Check, undated).

This featured topic was prepared after researching within time constraints. It is meant to offer an overview on an issue and is not, and does not urport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status, asylum or other form of international protection. Chronologies are not intended to be exhaustive. Every quotation is referred to with a hyperlink to the respective document.