Taliban Makes Gains Against Afghan Government
Aug 07, 2003

Stratfor Intelligence


Stratfor sources have confirmed reports from a Web site maintained by Muslim jihadists that the Taliban has regained control of most of Zabul province in southeastern Afghanistan. This marks the first time that Taliban fighters -- in concert with al Qaeda forces -- have retaken a province since being ousted from power by the U.S. military in November 2001. It also underscores the stalemate between the U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban.


After months of cat-and-mouse battles in various districts, Taliban forces appear to have wrested control of almost all of Zabul from the provincial Afghan militias. Stratfor sources have confirmed the advance, which initially was reported in a Web site maintained by proponents of jihad, Jihadunspun.com. The reported seizure of the strategically important southeastern province, which lies along the border with Pakistan, marks the first time that the Taliban has been able to regain control of a province since being ousted from power by the U.S. military in November 2001.

The advance also underscores the stalemate between the United States and its Afghan allies against the Taliban, and it indicates that the alliance formed in early 2002 between the Taliban, al Qaeda and Hizb-i-Islami -- the party led by Afghan war lord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- is paying off for the militants.

Zabul is of strategic and military importance for a number of reasons. First, taking Zabul cuts off U.S. troops stationed to the south in Kandahar from the bulk of U.S. troops located to the north toward Kabul.

Second, given that Helmand and Oruzgan provinces to the north of Zabul already are Taliban strongholds, the group can better try to isolate U.S. and local provincial troops in Kandahar and eventually attempt to retake Kandahar as well.

Third, controlling Zabul gives the Taliban a way to cut lines of logistics, troop supply and communication between U.S. and coalition troops in Kandahar and in Paktika and Paktia provinces to the east and along the border with Pakistan.

How the Taliban reportedly was able to retake virtually all of a province of such strategic importance is partly explained by the fact that the south has been the Taliban's traditional stronghold. Beginning in late March and early April -- expecting the United States would be preoccupied with the war in Iraq -- the Taliban perceived an opportunity to begin regrouping, particularly in Zabul, Oruzgan, Kandahar, Helmand, Nimruz and Farah.

Disaffection among southern Afghans has played a key role in Taliban recruitment of fighters as well as in their ability to garner support from the local population. The disaffection stems partly from a sense that development promised by the central government and the United States is proceeding at a snail's pace. Taliban attacks have halted virtually all work by international aid agencies. Also, many Pushtuns reportedly feel they are underrepresented at the national level, even though President Hamid Karzai is an ethnic Pushtun.

The small size and disproportionate distribution of U.S.-led coalition forces also has been a factor in the Taliban advances. U.S.-led forces number a meager 11,500, while the Afghan national army has only about 4,000 troops. Areas left thinly guarded were targeted by the Taliban, which has been able to set up checkpoints in Kandahar to eliminate key political and religious figures there and in other southern provinces. Authorities in Zabul also have complained to the media about shortage of military funding from Kabul.

U.N. Special Envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi warned in early May that "forces believed to be associated with the Taliban, al Qaeda and [war lord] Hekmatyar have been stepping up operations … in the south, southeast and east of the country," AFP reported in May. A worker from a Kandahar-based Western NGO, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban is organizing into groups of 30 to 80 fighters. Afghan government officials repeatedly have said that large groups of new fighters continue to infiltrate from across the border in Pakistan.

The Taliban began its campaign to retake Zabul about five months ago. Prompted by the May 27 killing of Taliban resistance leader Mullah Ghausuddin in Zabul during a battle with government troops, Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Mohammed Omar reorganized his forces in the south. Pamphlets were distributed in Zabul, urging Afghan soldiers and police to join the struggle against the Karzai regime and its U.S. supporters.

When key Taliban guerrilla commander Mullah Abdur Rahim was wounded earlier this year, the Omar appointed a top intelligence officer from his former regime, Mullah Abdus Samad, to help him carry out operations. The new round of attacks on U.S. and Afghan government forces in Zabul and the neighboring provinces began after a three-day meeting in July of senior Taliban leaders and tribal elders, who appointed Mullah Jabbar as a rival governor in Zabul.

Zabul's provincial deputy governor, Mullah Mohammed Omar (not to be confused with the Taliban supreme leader), told Reuters on July 27 that the government's failure to pay troops' salaries was causing the army to lose strength. Now there are daily reports of intense battles erupting between Taliban and pro-government forces in the southern provinces. The Christian Science Monitor reported on July 14 that a complex network of human intelligence sources is giving the Taliban an edge. The report also said the Taliban has makeshift training facilities for new recruits, both in southern Afghanistan and in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Konar and Lachman.

Before Zabul fell, the provincial military had warned of an imminent defeat if the central government did not send reinforcements and air support from the United States, AFP reported on July 28. It appears that the provincial forces retreated, paving the way for a takeover by the Taliban.

The takeover of Zabul also fuels accusations by the Afghan government that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban. Stratfor sources in Pakistan say a significant portion of the Pakistani intelligence service and military, particularly junior officers, have not abandoned the Taliban. Though there might be truth to the government's accusations, it also is possible the Karzai government -- which has been criticized for being unable to extend its reach beyond Kabul -- is trying to defend itself by pointing fingers at Islamabad.

Since the United States likely will launch a massive counteroffensive, Zabul might not remain in Taliban hands for long. However, that the Taliban apparently could regain control of a province, even temporarily, underscores the vulnerability of the Karzai regime and the military stalemate between the Afghan government and Taliban fighters. Stratfor sources in Afghanistan say it is possible the Taliban could seize more provinces neighboring Zabul because of what it describes as the structural and functional inabilities of the Karzai government.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to be focused on Iraq and lacks a clear strategy for neutralizing the threat from the alliance between the Taliban, al Qaeda and Hizb-i-Islami as well as from other Afghan forces that don't necessarily share their Islamist ideology but oppose the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

The larger question now is: What will happen in the long term, should the U.S. military pull out of Afghanistan or should Afghanistan no longer enjoy its high-priority status on the list of U.S. foreign policy initiatives?